Boxes where parents can leave an unwanted baby, common in medieval Europe, have been making a comeback over the last 10 years. Supporters say a heated box, monitored by nurses, is better for babies than abandonment on the street – but the UN says it violates the rights of the child.
It is an unlikely scene for the most painful of dramas. On the edge of a road in a leafy suburb of Berlin, there is a sign pointing through the trees down a path. It says “Babywiege” – Baby Cradle.
At the end of that path, there is a stainless steel hatch with a handle. Pull that hatch open, and there are neatly folded blankets for a baby. The warmth is safe and reassuring. There is a letter, too, telling you who to call if you change your mind.
About twice a year, someone – presumably a woman – treads that path at the secluded rear of Waldfriede Hospital and leaves the baby, perhaps born in secret only a few hours earlier.
That person – presumably the mother – then turns and walks away, never to see the baby again. The baby grows, but never gets to know who his or her mother was.
The word “presumably” is used because the process is secret and anonymous, so nobody knows who the people are who make that walk, carrying a baby to reverse their steps without one.
So one of the arguments made by those who condemn the system is that it may well be men who are giving the baby away, dumping him or her seems too hard a word. The critics say that baby boxes may be used by unscrupulous fathers or even controllers of prostitutes to put pressure on mothers to dispose of an unwanted baby.
The psychologist, Kevin Browne of Nottingham University told the BBC: “Studies in Hungary show that it’s not necessarily mothers who place babies in these boxes – that it’s relatives, pimps, step-fathers, fathers.
“Therefore, the big question is: are these baby boxes upholding women’s rights, and has the mother of that child consented to the baby being placed in the baby box?”
Professor Browne continued: “The baby hatch is so anonymous, and so removed from the availability of counselling, that it creates a damage and a danger to the mother and child.”
On this argument, by making it so easy to get rid of a baby, mothers are less likely to get the real help they need in their situation of great emotional trauma and even physical risk.
It is an argument the people who set up baby boxes reject. They say, rather, that they are offering desperate mothers a safe way to get rid of their unwanted babies. Those who don’t walk the path to the baby box might instead leave the baby in the biting cold of a public place.
Or worse. A court case has just finished in Germany where a mother was prosecuted for killing her baby by throwing it from a fifth-floor balcony.