PUBLISHED: 16:03 EST, 7 July 2012 | UPDATED: 16:23 EST, 7 July 2012
That sign reads ‘Babywiege’, the German word for a cradle: a tactful name for a steel box where newborn babies can be abandoned in complete anonymity and privacy at the city’s Waldfriede Hospital. It is a practice accepted in Germany, yet it is illegal.
The ‘baby hatch’ is lined with a cheerful yellow baby changing-mat and a soft embroidered blanket. A plain white envelope addressed to the person abandoning their baby sits in the middle of the yellow blanket.
It contains a letter offering counselling to the grieving mother, and a telephone number. Once the steel door closes, it cannot be opened again: a sensor is triggered by the baby’s movement. An arrival is recorded by a small video camera in the corner of the box, and an alarm goes off within the hospital.
The future of a vulnerable new life is now out of the hands of its parents. It is 2012 and this is Germany, one of Europe’s strongest economies, yet the medieval phenomenon of foundlings – abandoned newborns – is on the rise.
The first devices for foundlings were used in 12th Century Italy. At the time, the Catholic Church decreed that women could abandon their children in secret rather than kill them.
The original foundling ‘wheel’ was a cylindrical device set against the walls of churches and a bell was rung once a baby was placed inside.
The practice spread across Europe and continued until the 19th Century. Now it has resurfaced around the world. No one knows exactly why. Economic pressures and social breakdown are often cited.
But it is also a fact that baby boxes are supported by many religious conservatives, most notably in the US, where the abandonment of newborns in this way is not illegal. A number of baby hatches have been established in Europe by church groups.
A baby hatch opened in Hamburg in 2000 and since then more than 200 have opened across Germany, providing a place for babies to be abandoned.
Hundreds of infants have been left in that time and many more women have chosen to use places such as the Waldfriede Hospital to give birth anonymously before deserting their newborn and melting back into society.
Waldfriede Hospital’s Babywiege opened shortly after the Hamburg one and since then it has dealt with 180 abandoned babies, 19 of them in the box.
The hospital is funded by the Protestant Christian Seventh Day Adventist Church and it deliberately chose a wealthy middle-class area of Berlin; a district unlikely to have this kind of social problem and where anonymity can be guaranteed. Women come from across Germany to use the hatch or to give birth in the hospital.
This particular facility is run by the hospital pastor Gabriele Stangl, a cheerful, steely woman in her 50s, with a halo of soft brown curls falling to her shoulders and a ready, open smile. That smile masks the gruelling nature of her work.
She has fought many battles over the years to keep the hatch open. Advocates like her believe that without their work, babies would be abandoned on the streets or killed. To her, she is offering a service that cuts the number of infanticides in Germany.
‘This does not deal with why they are there in the first place’
‘People say, how could a woman do this? How cruel. But fear is something personal. Fear, depression and denial: it is a psychological block and it can even lead some women to kill their babies right after birth,’ said Stangl, sitting in her counselling room in the hospital, surrounded by soothing pictures of pink roses and pot-pourri.
‘We have to be honest. Between 40 and 60 babies in Germany are killed every year. We find their bodies in toilets, forests, attics, carrier bags. Five years ago, there was a case of a mother in Germany who gave birth to ten babies in her life.
‘She killed six and buried them in flower pots and kept the pots in her garden and on the balcony, to keep her babies near her. She was a wonderful mother to the four who lived. The deaths were only discovered when she moved house and the new owner accidentally knocked over one of the pots.
‘Of course she was depressed. But it shows the quiet desperation of some women. We offer them help; a haven and in return we save lives.’
The staff at Waldfriede are in no doubt that abandonment is the hardest thing a mother can do, triggering emotions of loss akin to the death of a child.
It is the detail of individual cases that is shocking. Stangl has countless examples of women who are young, poor and in trouble who turn to the baby hatch or anonymous birth as an answer.
She has thick files for babies born or left at the hospital. A photo is taken on the day a baby is abandoned: all are clean, washed and dressed in beautiful little outfits. They all look as if they were loved for those few hours before being left.
Many of the mothers are white Germans from poor backgrounds. But this is not exclusive, as Stangl knows because a lot of the women contact her for counselling afterwards, and then confess their stories.
‘I had one woman who abandoned her baby in the hatch. She read my letter and got in touch for counselling. Her story was surprising: a well-to-do, 42-year-old woman married to a German businessman. To the world he was brilliant. Yet in private he beat her every day. One day she left him, leaving the house with not even one piece of paper. She left her children.’
For nine years the woman lived on the streets and was homeless. She was raped and became pregnant, gave birth on the street and turned to the baby hatch in Berlin. After leaving her baby, Angelica, she got back in touch. Stangl explained that the move led to counselling, to help her get her children back, get her life back and divorce the abusive husband.
‘It saved her life. We’re not just about abandoning babies. Ninety five per cent of our work is counselling. One third of our mothers come back to their babies.’
Yet abandonment of children is illegal in Germany because it denies the child the right to know where it came from.
Stangl has little sympathy with such niceties, saying: ‘Which is more important, protecting life or protecting roots? You need to be alive to have an identity.’
The number of baby hatches is on the rise worldwide and can be found in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, the U.S. and even Pakistan
So the hatches operate in a grey legal area, recognised by the German authorities for their life-saving work and help for desperate mothers, yet at odds with the law of the land.
Stangl has even received a medal of honour from the German government, illustrating the strange divide at the heart of public discourse.
The number of baby hatches is on the rise worldwide. Although there is no sign of any in Britain, they can be found in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, the US and even in Pakistan. Proponents use the same kind of language as the religious Right and the pro-life lobby, say analysts. They talk of ‘protecting life’.
Opposition, though, is mounting. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child this year expressed concern about the rise in child abandonment worldwide and said it ‘contravenes the right of the child to be known and cared for by its parents’.
Committee member Maria Herczog has said there is no evidence that the hatches prevent infanticide. But there is another more disturbing criticism. By its very nature, it is anonymous, so who really leaves the babies in the boxes?
Kevin Browne, of the Centre for Forensic and Family Psychology at Nottingham University, carried out a two-year study into the trend and warned: ‘There is growing evidence that it is frequently men or relatives abandoning the child’.
Could it be that the babies are abandoned by angry fathers, relatives or even pimps?
These glaring risks were illustrated with devastating clarity at the Waldfriede Babywiege one summer several years ago in an incident that led to a nationwide uproar and almost shut down the hatches.
Stangl said: ‘Around 1.20 in the afternoon, the alarm went off. The nurse went to the hatch to collect the baby. Inside was a dead newborn who had been stabbed 15 times and left there.
‘We were bombarded by the media, and public pressure mounted on us to close. I trusted in God to give me the answer. We remained open.’
Police believed the baby was murdered by a male relative and put in the hatch. The staff at the hospital named him Daniel. ‘It means God is my justice,’ Stangl said.
Since that case more babies’ lives have been saved by the hatch, but the tragedy has marked everyone at Waldfriede.
Stangl then insists on telling me the case of Thomas, a little boy abandoned by a young couple just before Christmas a few years ago. The parents returned and now raise their boy together: ‘Thomas knows he was in a little bed here and that this hospital helps babies when they need it.’
Thomas is just one among the third of the children abandoned in Germany who are eventually reclaimed. When the mothers open the baby hatch, they find the short form to fill out – it also acts as an invaluable help should they later change their minds.
In the UK, statistics suggest around 16 babies are abandoned each year, and the majority are newborns. The reasons can range from economic and social pressure to fear of rejection by the mother’s partner; from failing to bond to post-natal depression.
The head of child survival at Save the Children, Simon Wright, agrees with the UN that the answer lies in better family planning and contraceptive advice, plus access to proper counselling and healthcare.
He said: ‘Baby boxes are a short-cut response to a much bigger problem, and do not deal with any of the underlying reasons that babies are abandoned.
‘Instead of setting them up, governments should concentrate on giving women choice and control over having children. We would oppose their introduction in the UK.
‘In the long run, they are not good for mothers or children.’
Even in Germany, pressure is mounting for a fresh approach. In 2009, the German Ethics Council called for an end to baby hatches and for ‘confidential child delivery’ instead of total anonymity.
And as economic conditions worsen in Europe and beyond and more families are placed under pressure, the number of foundlings is expected to rise. It is a debate that will only grow louder.