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Baby box controversy at mothers' charity

A volunteer demonstrates with a doll how the hatch will work  

ANTWERP, Belgium -- The three-month-old baby was crying, hungry and grubby.

A volunteer at a Flemish charitable parenting foundation gave the baby a bath, dressed it in new clothes and handed it back to its family, along with a new pram and blankets and other supplies that would make this particular baby's life a little more comfortable.

The charity was Mothers for Mothers (Moeders voor Moeders), which has recently made the news in Belgium, not for its charitable works, but for launching a scheme whereby unwanted newborn babies can be deposited anonymously by their mothers.

And the family, like many before them, had recently arrived in Antwerp from Kosovo with just two suitcases of possessions. Their landlord, seeing their struggle for survival, had taken the baby and its brothers and sisters to the Mothers house for help.

CNN's Patricia Kelly looks at the controversial organization

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The landlord did not want to be identified -- the family from Kosovo is probably in Belgium illegally -- but it was the first time he had visited the foundation. Volunteer Katrin Beyer says before he left he promised to come back and do some building work on the run-down premises.

She explains that is how the foundation has grown during the past eight years, with donations of money and goods and offers of help from individuals and companies.

The Mothers' house is actually four houses joined together in an Antwerp terraced street. A warehouse complex at the back stores prams, buggies and other baby paraphernalia. There are whole rooms of toys, shelves and freezer chests stacked with food -- all destined for impoverished mothers and their children.

A baby safe deposit box -- actually a warm incubator -- is accessible from the street 24 hours a day. When the hatch to the baby box is opened, an alarm alerts volunteers. Beyer says the baby would receive primary care and would then be handed over to the authorities.

The idea is not new. A similar system existed in Antwerp 200 years ago.

Convents throughout Europe used to accept abandoned babies left by unknown mothers on their premises. Today, cities in Italy, Hungary, South Africa and Germany also operate baby boxes.

But the critics say the modern version is based on medieval ethics.

The mayor of Antwerp, Leona Detiege, has been an outspoken in her condemnation of the Antwerp baby box. She points out that it is a crime in Belgium for women to abandon their babies, a crime that carries a prison sentence, and she claims Mothers for Mothers are inciting women to commit a crime by establishing the box.

"We're no longer living in the middle ages," says Detiege. "We have proper organisations equipped to deal with mothers who want to put their babies up for adoption. Four out of five mothers decide after six months that they want their children back -- this system means the mother can never be identified."

The scheme is also a violation of children's rights, according to Ankie Vandekerckhove, the Flemish Commissioner for Children's Rights.

"We're living in a welfare state and there are all kinds of social services to help young girls or older women who are pregnant who don't know what to do with their baby," she says.

"With this baby hatch there's no way of finding out who your mother is. And also for the mother there's no way to find out what's happened later on to the baby, so it's a very drastic and dramatic solution. It's not really a solution."

The organisers have put a stamp pad in the box so the mother can make a print of the baby's foot -- to keep as a memento or as proof that she put it there - although Beyer says she is not sure that the imprint would have any legal value if the mother later wanted to reclaim her baby.

baby box
The mother can make a print of her baby's foot using the stamp pad in each box  

She points out the baby box is not designed to be used by the many families who come to the foundation for help, but is supposed to be a last resort for a frightened, lonely woman.

"We compare our hatch to a safe haven for a child that would otherwise have been abandoned in a public toilet or a telephone booth or a bin liner," she says, adding that the police have told her they believe the few found abandoned are, they believe, "the tip of the iceberg".

The mayor says no abandoned babies have been found in Antwerp and therefore she does not see the need for the box.

But two babies have been dumped in other Belgian cities -- Charleroi and Ostend -- during the past few months. Mothers for Mothers want more baby boxes in the country to catch unwanted children who do fall through the welfare net.

Statute aims to protect newborns from harm
June 19, 2000
Michigan hospitals offering safe haven for abandoned babies
March 24, 2000
Hamburg offers babies life before abandonment
March 9, 2000

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