A man steals out of the darkness and drops a paper bag at the door of the building, pressing the bell before he leaves. The sign above the doorway reads "Infant Safety Island", and a thin wail rises from the flimsy bag.
Rejecting abortion, more families have begun to adopt this practice as a “humane” way to abandon their unwanted children – a method proposed by a former Social Welfare Centre head after the frequent abandonment of babies at orphanages, parks and other less-welcoming locations often resulted in their deaths. These “baby hatches” sprouted in several Chinese cities at the end of 2013, usually a random plot of land with a small box of a building perched on top and equipped with blankets, oxygen and an incubator. According to Chinese media, to protect the identities of the parents there are no surveillance cameras at the baby hatches, but a guard is posted to observe the drop-offs from afar.
China-watchers will be familiar with the grisly stories of day-old infants, umbilical cords intact, abandoned in sewers and dumpsters and often freezing to death.
In Shenzhen, known as China’s baby-abandonment capital, at least one infant per day is dumped despite laws that prohibit such action. When Tang Rong-sheng, the former head of Shenzhen’s social welfare centre, launched an alternative way that allows parents to give up their children safely and anonymously, there was an uproar. Critics of the baby hatches said Tang was encouraging more people to shirk the responsibility of raising their children. But Tang’s initiative caught the attention of officials elsewhere, and the baby hatches spread to Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing and cities across the nation.
The practice is a lifeline for the babies, raising the survival rate by 70 per cent, but is this the only way to deal with China’s poverty, gender inequality and one-child policy problems? The actions of these parents should not be attributed solely to character flaws: a stronger and unavoidable force is also at work.
Many parents leave emotional notes with their infant, saying they were forced to part with their offspring, and pleading that the baby’s life be saved. The same desperate pleas were made frequently in the long era of Beijing’s one-child policy, which was slammed as a far-reaching violation of human rights by many in the world. The government sometimes forced abortions in families that were unable to pay the second-child fine. For families who dodged this penalty, baby hatches seemed to be the only way left.
The criticism of baby hatches also spread to Taiwan, where many say they would cultivate a sense of irresponsibility in young Taiwanese parents, encouraging them to feel that “abandonment” is perfectly acceptable. But the Child Welfare League Foundation reports that at least one child is abandoned in Taiwan every day, equalling statistics in the notorious Shenzhen.
Despite resistance to the idea in Taiwan, baby hatches could be a crucial way of saving lives amid a spike in the number of abandonment cases in recent years.
With the ban on child abandonment, the baby hatches occupy a grey area in Chinese law. But those who claim the hatches are inhumane and only encourage irresponsibility are blinding themselves to the fact that baby abandonment is largely an economic issue, driven by poverty rather than a lack of morality. Perhaps what they are is a human and practical response to inhumane social conditions.