Saving Unwanted Babies

April 6, 2007 — -- Japan, not without some controversy, has joined a growing list of countries offering so-called "baby drops" -- safe havens where parents can anonymously drop off their unwanted infants.

The Catholic-run Jikei Hospital on the island of Kumamoto, 550 miles southwest of Tokyo, has just been given permission to install what hospital administrators call the "Cradle of the White Stork."

The "stork's cradle" is a small incubator bed accessible through a small window in the hospital wall. An alarm bell rings within minutes after a baby is anonymously left in the incubator, signaling nurses to retrieve the infant.

The idea is patterned after programs in Italy as well as Germany's "baby box," initiated by a Christian organization in Hamburg in 2000. Today, more than 90 such drop-offs are located throughout Germany.

"We want to save both the children and the mothers," Jikei Hospital director Taiji Hasuda told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. "The children are not the ones responsible for their birth."

The plan came about after a series of high-profile cases in which parents reportedly abandoned newborn babies in parks, shopping centers, supermarkets and even in bicycle baskets.

In Kumamoto, a university student gave birth to a baby girl last year in a washroom. Soon, the daughter was dead and the student was sentenced to six years in prison for murder. During her trial, the student wept openly about the child she said she had killed. The case received a lot of publicity and encouraged administrators at Jikei Hospital to come up with the "stork's cradle" plan.

"This hospital places great value on life," head nurse Yukiko Tajiri told reporters in Japan. "We want to widen the choices available to women."

Babies placed in the incubator will be cared for by the hospital staff and then turned over to "infant homes" or other child-care facilities. If parents of the abandoned children reveal their identities, the hospital will then try to find foster parents after obtaining the consent of the biological parents. It's a tall order in a country that does not embrace adoption.

Baby safe havens are in wide use in the United States, although rather than windows, states with the program often let parents leave babies at police stations or hospitals with no questions asked.

In Europe, the drop-off windows have names like "babyklappe" (baby slot) in Austria and Germany; "babyfenster" (baby window) in Switzerland; "babybox" in the Czech Republic; and "culle per vite" (cradles for life) in Italy.

Japan's move has been met with disapproval in some circles.

"It's unforgivable that mothers and fathers will be allowed to abandon their babies anonymously," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Thursday. Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, called the plan "fundamentally unacceptable." Others say it will encourage more parents to abandon their children.

Jikei Hospital's Hasuda is aware of such concerns but notes that the number of children abandoned in Germany has not increased since the baby boxes were set up.

The Jikei Hospital, which will make the "Cradle of the White Stork" available 24 hours a day, is expected to start accepting newborns in about a month.

In Germany, up to 60 infants are killed by their mothers every year. In Hamburg alone about 22 babies have been dropped off at hospitals since the program began five years ago. The reasons for baby abandonment are complex.

"All these women can think of is to avoid trouble with their partners or with their parents. Some women have greater fear of losing their partners than losing their child. They usually hide the pregnancy until it is too late, and when the baby arrives, they panic and the only thing they can think of is how to get rid of it," German author Annegret Wiese wrote in her book "When Mothers Kill."

Professor Anke Rohde, a psychiatrist at the Medical University Clinic in Bonn, said the baby drops were no cure-all.

"This may be one way to deal with the problem, but certainly can't be the only way," she told "Mothers caught in such a horrific situation are completely stressed out. They can't even think straight. The risk is that because of that stressful situation they'll ignore or simply overlook the possibility to drop off their babies. More needs to be done in order to help those women."

Italy has had a law in place since 1975 that also guarantees women in the country illegally won't be deported if they decide on such an anonymous birth.

The northern Italian town of Padua installed a baby drop to curb incidents of babies dumped in the trash and public places. The National Association for Adoptive and Foster Families says that 400 newborns are abandoned in Italy every year -- a 10 percent yearly increase.