Since Moses was nestled into the reeds, the problem of abandoned babies has been a matter of much societal anguish. On the one hand, we hold parents -- well, frankly it's usually mothers -- responsible for the children they bring into the world. In most countries, abandoning your child is a crime. But since this often leads to desperate women to simply killing their babies or leaving them to die in Dumpsters, for centuries well meaning folk have been trying to save the babies by giving women legal, anonymous ways to give up their babies. The baby hatch is the most modern of these devices. It consists of an incubated bed behind a flap in the wall, outfitted with a sensor to alert a staff person that a baby has been place inside. Although hatches have never been used in the U.S. -- many states have instead adopted safe surrendered baby laws -- they've become increasingly popular in Europe and other parts of the world.
This week, Reuters Life reported that a Japanese hospital has announced plans to install the nation's first baby hatch. The Japanese hospital said they were inspired to create the hatch after seeing them in Germany, which has installed an estimated 80 such hatches in hospitals and social centers across the nation since 2000.
The baby hatch is but a newfangled version of the foundling wheel, a sort of revolving door used in various parts of Europe from the Middle Ages until the late 1800s, which allowed women to leave their babies at hospitals, churches or orphanages in secret. Last year Italy brought back an actual wheel, in a more high-tech form. In South Africa hatches have been installed by Christian organizations to take in babies orphaned or abandoned by the AIDS epidemic; in India they've been used as part of a campaign to quell the practice of infanticide.
At first glance these deft contraptions seem to offer an unalloyed social good. But what's troubling about these inventions is how many of them throughout history were eventually closed because they became too popular. In the 19th century, during a period of abject poverty, Paris' Htpital des Enfants-Trouvis (Hospital for Foundling Children) removed its wheel after tens of thousands of babies per year were left there.
Like foreign adoptions and other mechanisms for saving children from miserable lives, baby hatches raises questions about our not saving the lives of the women who bore them. In an affluent country like Germany or Japan, baby hatches probably do their jobs and give an important alternative for desperate mothers as well as children. But in any society afflicted with extreme poverty, fatal epidemics or laws in which women's lives are at risk for, say, having a child out of wedlock, the baby hatch offers no true escape for women.