Monday 11 December 2017

The saddest delivery: official postboxes for unwanted babies . . .

It's shortly after 2am on a dank and rain-sodden Dublin night. Nineteen-year-old Sally stands outside the front entrance of a city hospital -- in her arms she tightly clutches her two-week-old newly born son.

She is about to make a decision which will change forever the course of her life and that of her child.

In absolute secrecy, she is about to give away her baby.

She hesitates for one last moment as she looks at the face of her son whom she has already in her own mind christened James.

Sally knows her dysfunctional, drug-fuelled life means that keeping and looking after James is not an option.

Overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood -- and on the edge of a complete breakdown -- she realises she simply cannot cope with looking after James.

So, in the silence of the night, she quietly opens a steel door to a hatch at the front of the hospital.

Then with a tear-stained muffled goodbye she carefully places her baby in what is in fact a heated crib in a room on the other side of the wall.

Electronic sensors detect movement -- an alarm sounds -- urgently alerting doctors to the fact that a newborn baby has been placed in the hatch.

Once closed this hatch cannot be opened again from the outside.

This is a hypothetical story.

But it could happen in Ireland if "baby boxes" were introduced here as is the case in a number of European countries including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Latvia.

The idea is that these miniature capsules are available to mothers who decide to anonymously abandon a newborn shortly after birth.

Usually built into a hospital wall, they provide a safe haven for infants who are simply unwanted, often by a mother who for whatever reason is suffering from psychological problems.

CCTV cameras are strategically pointed away from the drop-off point ensuring anonymity for the mother concerned.

A report this week said that the UN is increasingly concerned with the spread of these baby boxes in various European countries and it is estimated there are now more than 200 in operation across the Continent.

Internationally, those who support the scheme point out that over the last decade more than 400 children have been abandoned in these hatches.

They say that almost certainly some of these infants would have been aborted if this option was not available to the mothers.

The controversial scheme was first introduced in Hungary in 1996, and by the end of last year there were 26 baby hatches in the country.

An estimated 40 babies have been left in these facilities over the past 15 years and the latest figures show that since 2000 just over 400 children have been left in 200 baby boxes currently spread across 12 European countries.

Although the idea seems alien, it goes all the way back to medieval Italy when "foundling wheels" would be placed in certain mother and baby homes so that women could secretly abandon newly born infants rather than killing them.

However, their recent proliferation in mainland Europe has jolted the UN into action, provoking it to argue that all concerned "must respect the child's right to maintain personal relations with his or her parent".

The most recent figures for Ireland show that from 1997 to 2005 a total of 22 babies -- alive and deceased -- were abandoned in frantic and tragic circumstances.

However, there has been an undoubtedly huge culture change here in recent decades. The number of babies voluntarily given for adoption has dwindled.

The vast majority of single women who go ahead with a crisis pregnancy keep their child, no longer burdened by the stigma of being an unmarried mother.

Social welfare supports have also made it easier.

A spokesman for Health Minister James Reilly flatly ruled out the possibility of introducing baby boxes during his tenure in government.

"Minister Reilly believes such a move would be unwise and counter-productive. He believes it would send out a bad signal in terms of our commitment to the welfare of mothers and children," the spokesman said.

Deirdre Maddon from University College Cork's law faculty says if the baby box scheme should reach Ireland the legal status of the child will remain the same.

"Whether the child is left on the steps of a church, as has often been the case, or left in hospital grounds, its status doesn't change irrespective of location."

If a baby is deemed to be abandoned by its mother and she does not come back to claim her baby after a certain length of time, the High Court can allow the child to be adopted.

For now, it looks like the concept of the baby boxes is abhorrent to many people here.

We remain a country of contradictions when it comes to the rights of children.

We have a booming birth rate but many continue to make the journey to the UK or the Netherlands to discreetly and secretly terminate their pregnancies every week.

The sight of babies in boxes might be an uncomfortable reality we would find too hard to bear.

Indo Review

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