Desperate mothers are being urged to drop their unwanted babies through hatches at hospitals in Germany in an effort to halt a spate of infanticides that has shocked the country.
At least 23 babies have been killed so far this year, many of them beaten to death or strangled by their mothers before being dumped on wasteland and in dustbins.
Police investigating the murders are at a loss to explain the sudden surge in such cases, which have involved mothers of all ages all over the country.
City councils have launched an advertising campaign to highlight the problem and to promote greater use of what are being called Baby-Klappe hatches that allow women to drop off their babies to be found and cared for without having to give their names. Posters were being put up in cities and towns across Germany yesterday, urging women to make use of the Baby-Klappe, with the slogan “Before babies land in the rubbish bin . . .”
The campaign has already drawn criticism from senior clergymen and from charities, including Caritas, who argue that it could actively encourage mothers to dump their children. But there is agreement that something must be done to address what appears to be an infanticide epidemic.
Last Thursday a 27-year-old woman known as Sabine H surrendered to police in an east German town after her newborn child was found in a blue plastic rubbish bag floating in a lake.
In the same week Monika K, 26, was arrested on suspicion of throwing her baby out of a 10-storey Hamburg apartment building, wrapped in a plastic shopping bag. She had given birth to him half an hour before, in the bathtub. A dog found the bag and tore it open.
For the past week, Susanne H from Baiersdorf in Bavaria has been on trial for strangling her baby daughter and putting her in the freezer. The 39-year-old mother of two boys, aged 10 and 4, feared her boyfriend’s disapproval. “He threatened to throw me out if I concealed another pregnancy from him,” she told the court.
Another woman was arrested in Kiel a week ago after police found two dead babies in her freezer. One was stillborn a year ago; the other was a recent live birth.
Earlier this month in Kiel, a driver pulled up to a garage and found the corpse of a young baby in a waste-paper basket. The DNA coincided with that of another baby who was fished out of a trash sorting depot a year ago; the mother has not been traced.
So far this year at least 23 cases of infanticide have come to light, well above the average. Experts believe that the true figure is even higher. Professor Helmut Kury, a criminologist, say: “Some women have a greater fear of losing their partners than of losing their child. They take desperate measures to save a relationship.”
Professor Mechthild Neises, head of the Psychosomatic Unit at the Medical University in Hanover, agreed: “Such women have usually lied about their pregnancy for so long that they have stopped believing that they are actually pregnant. When the baby suddenly arrives, they panic and just want to get rid of it.”
But the baby-drops, modeled on foundling wheels that were first used in Italy in medieval times, are not seen as the final antidote to these killings. “Often the mother is under such psychological pressure that she doesn’t even register alternatives like the Baby-Klappe,” Dr Neises said.
But they do offer an alternative for some mothers. The drop-off point is usually hidden from view, shielded by trees and away from security cameras. The baby is put on to a tray that slides through a hole in the wall and is gently lowered into a heated cot. An alarm bell alerts nursing staff — but only after the mother has been given sufficient time to make a getaway. The baby can be reclaimed, usually up to three months later, should the mother change her mind.
In Berlin the posters, giving full addresses and phone numbers of three hospitals with baby-drops, are sponsored by Hans Wall, a businessman whose company maintains bus shelters and public lavatories. A baby was dumped in one of his shelters on a cold night last January. He became its godfather and will finance its education.
Political support for the campaign has come from the Green party, but the government is more wary, fearing legal problems. On occasions children with severe disabilities or babies aged over 3 months have been dumped: both in breach of the law.
“There are serious legal and professional arguments against baby-drops,” a government spokeswoman said. “But we cannot ignore the fact that they can save lives.”
In Berlin alone 6 babies have been pushed through a slot since they were introduced in 2003. Initial skepticism started to melt after a woman in eastern German was arrested for letting nine of her babies die. Some were buried in plant pots in her garden.