A pair of recent cases in Switzerland has turned new attention to the issue of "Babyklappe" – drop-off points for abandoned newborns. The country currently has just one such facility, though more could be on the way.
ZURICH -- Switzerland has been stirred in recent days by the contrasting fates of two babies. In Wimmis, near the city of Bern, a newborn child was found dead last week on a junk heap. Several days later, a healthy, one-month-old baby was deposited at the Babyklappe – a place where unwanted infants can be turned in – in the hospital in Einsiedeln, canton Schwyz.
The incidents gave new wind to calls that more drop-off points like the one in Einsiedeln be created. The Einsiedeln Babyfenster (Baby Window) is in fact the only such facility in the country, even though available figures suggest more drop-off points are a good idea. The facility's homepage (www.babyfenster.ch) states that "since we opened on May 9, 2001, the number of newborn babies found dead has markedly decreased in Switzerland." According to the site, from 1996 to 2000, 11 babies were given up anonymously at birth and 64% died. From 2001 to 2005, eight babies were abandoned. Half of them died. Of the four that survived, three were brought to the Babyfenster. From 2006 to 2010, there were nine babies, 22% died; again, three of the survivors were brought to the Babyklappe.
The Swiss in general, according to a poll conducted in 2011, favor opening new drop-off points: 87% saw the creation of more Babyklappen as very useful or useful. Roughly 58% said there should be regional drop-off points, while 28% were for opening a facility in every hospital. A number of hospitals, like the Spital Zollikerberg (canton Zurich), are planning to do just that – and the Spital Davos (canton Graubünden) will open its drop-off point this summer.
Is confidentiality the key?
In neighboring Germany, however, the trend is shifting in the other direction. According to the paper Zeit, German Minister of Families Kristina Schröder wants to "create a legal framework in 2012 for so-called ‘confidential births."" What at first glance appears positive would actually spell the end of Babyklappen. New regulations would mean that mothers could remain anonymous – but only for 10 years. After that, children would have the right to know who their biological mother was.
The logic behind the limited anonymity clause is that according to experts, children who do not know who their real parents are more susceptible to identity crises and problems of self-esteem. Schröder is also basing her recommendations on a study released a few days ago by the German Youth Institute (DJI). The report shows that – despite the introduction of Babyklappen and tolerance of "anonymous births' -- the number of infant deaths in Germany has not declined. The study also found that mothers who abandon their newborn babies anonymously and mothers who kill their infants have one thing in common: they live in a state of denial about their pregnancy until shortly before giving birth, they keep the pregnancy and birth a secret, and grow progressively isolated.
The authors of the study could only speculate, however, about why some mothers – after having gotten through giving birth in isolation – maintain some level of control over the situation and make sure nothing happens to the child, while others kill their newborn baby. The difference, they suggest, could lie in "personality structure and individual coping and problem solving mechanisms of the women." The study also suggests that "unexpected events that take place during childbirth, such as a doorbell ringing, could unleash panic and influence the mother's behavior."
If a routine event like a ringing doorbell that under most circumstances would not be particularly meaningful can impact whether a baby lives or dies, would knowing that there was a Babyklappe nearby make any difference? On the other hand, it might make all the difference – because the longer the trip to get there, the more unpredictable things can happen to unleash the mother's panic and potentially harmful behavior.
The study provides no definitive answers. But it does provide information about the background of mothers who give up their babies anonymously. What emerges is that from its outset, the Babyklappe project was based on false assumptions about the group it was targeting. It focused on prostitutes, drug addicts and very young girls, yet it seems that the group of women concerned is far more varied.
Babyklappe mothers cannot be categorized by age or social status. Their levels of education are as varied as their economic situations. What they do have in common, according to the study, are "diffuse, panicky anxiety and a related inability to communicate. The inability to verbalize the problem appears to lead to a sense of helplessness that makes it impossible for them to open up to people and get the support they need."
It is precisely because of the communication issue that guaranteed anonymity is a prerequisite to reach this group of women. So, is the direction being taken by the German minister of families the wrong one? Not necessarily. Because the study also shows that while the mothers display the wish for "a high degree of anonymity" as regards the authorities, employers and their social network, this wish is by no means as clear-cut as regards their baby. The study authors thus recommend developing "a concept for helping them that honors selective anonymity with regard to certain people and institutions but facilitates contact with others such as the child."
That there is a single right solution for all mothers who perceive their situations as desperate is unlikely. While some feel comfortable with the idea of a "confidential birth," for others the panic about losing anonymity is so great they lose sight of anything else, including the possibility of complications during childbirth and survival of the child. So developing a country-wide network of Babyklappen in Switzerland is certainly appropriate, as are other solutions like telephone help lines. The Schweizerische Hilfe für Mutter und Kind (Swiss Help for Mother and Child) is a case in point. The other key element is making sure the word gets out that these options exist.
Read the original story in German
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