Baby Boxes

Baby Box. The term itself is innocuous enough -cute, even- but the controversy it has engendered is far from benign. The concept is a simple one: instead of abandoning an unwanted baby, it is possible to leave it safely and anonymously in an incubator, often associated with a hospital, and usually inconspicuously accessible via a little door outside. At my hospital, when that outside door opens an alarm rings at the nurses desk, but it is delayed for 3o seconds or so, to allow the mother to leave and remain anonymous. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is asking for them to be banned, at least in Europe (where they are legal in many countries and available in many others), ostensibly because they violate children’s rights to identify their parents.

A German pastor, Gabriele Stangl, seems to have come up with the idea of the box in 1999 in response to the killing of a baby by the distraught mother. I find it hard to argue against the concept of such a refuge but because of the UN concern, perhaps it merits further analysis.

The argument that a child has the right to know its parent is a reasonable one, and yet it assumes that the child in question survives to ask the question. One implication therefore is that the problem lies not so much with the Baby Boxes, as with the need to abandon the baby in the first place. Unplanned pregnancies with the attendant need for contraception, health care programs available for all and social policies that care for people unable to survive otherwise… These, rather than the embarrassing Box that exposes the issues for all to see, are the real problems, so I suspect that the thrust of their argument rests on the need for psychologic, social and medical support for the community in general -and the mother in particular. But these services must not only be available but also accessible to all who require them -in other words, in a culturally and socioeconomically acceptable format that will not threaten those so marginalized that they have dropped out of other well-intentioned public and community programs. Sensitive, in other words, to their needs, however disparate from the norm.

And this is a tough sell to people who have learned not to trust the System with all its bureaucratic and legal constraints. They have realized there is usually a price to pay, whether in pride or criticism of a way of life they had not intended. The prejudice runs deep and subtle and often unnoticed by everyone except the people it purports to help. Having a program in place is one thing; making it effective and useful is another. Canada prides itself on its public health care system, its inclusivity, it’s universality, and yet there are many women who do not avail themselves of it except in dire emergencies, if then. It is not so much the availability of a service, in other words, but more its acceptability, and until we find a way to make it more sensitive to the needs of a population which lives on the edges of an otherwise oblivious society, there will be tragedies.

A wiser government -a wiser UN- would recognize the dissonance and, for the time being at least, prepare for those who, through no assignable fault of their own, do not choose the room it has prepared. The Baby Box is just another room, just another choice. There is no coercion in this, no implied change of policy abrogating the responsibility of a society to care for its less fortunate or less motivated members; it does not mean condoning the abandonment of unwanted babies. It does suggest a pragmatic approach, however: one that recognizes there will always be those who either do not want to be under the umbrella, or maybe cannot even find it. I remember a poem by Emily Dickinson: The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door; on her divine majority obtrude no more. It is a plea for the right of all of us -any of us- to have a choice. And it is a plea for the rest to recognize that there is a choice.

It’s not the choices we must work to change, but the reasons we make them.

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