Switzerland offers an emergency solution for desperate mothers who want to give away their infant anonymously.
A near tragedy shook Switzerland at the very start of the year: a passerby discovered a newborn baby at a waste-collection point in canton Bern. The little girl, in a state of hypothermia, was in critical condition. The mother was soon located by the police. She explained that she had deliberately chosen a busy place to abandon her child, in the hope that she would soon be found.
However, Switzerland has an emergency solution for desperate mothers: several hospitals in the country have set up “baby boxes”.
What are “baby boxes”?
Baby boxes are an arrangement that enables women to abandon their newborn babies without endangering the infant while remaining anonymous. Some hospitals thus install a kind of hatch in a discreet location on their premises. The mothers can open a window and lay their baby in a heated crib. An alarm goes off after a while and staff come to take care of the child. In the hatch, there is a letter for the mother containing advice and a list of contacts where she can receive help. If she changes her mind, she has one year to come forward to the authorities and reclaim her baby.
Newborn babies deposited in a baby hatch are considered to be foundlings. They are taken charge of by the guardianship office, which then initiates an adoption procedure.
How many baby boxes are there in Switzerland?
The first baby box was opened in 2001 at Einsiedeln Hospital in canton Schwyz. The system was set up on the initiative of a Christian and anti-abortion charitable foundation, Swiss Aid for Mother and Child, after the discovery of a dead newborn baby on the shores of Lake Sihl in 1999.
Today, there are eight baby boxes across Switzerland, in hospitals in Einsiedeln, Davos (canton Graubünden), Olten (canton Solothurn), Bern, Zollikerberg (canton Zurich), Bellinzona (canton Ticino), Basel and Sion (canton Valais).
Six of these hatches are managed in the form of a joint project by the respective hospital and Swiss Aid for Mother and Child, while the one in Zollikerberg is under the responsibility of the Diakoniewerk Neumünster foundationexternal link, and the one at Sion hospital was set up on the instigation of the cantonal authorities.
Austria and Germany were the first countries in Europe to reintroduce baby boxes in 2000. The system was widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages but had almost disappeared for more than a century. Today, many countries around the world offer this solution to mothers in distress.
Are the baby boxes often used?
Since the first hatch was set up in 2001, 24 newborn babies have been abandoned there, according to figures from Swiss Aid for Mother and Child and the government.
Is this mechanism for abandoning babies contested?
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends banning baby boxes, as they infringe the child's right to know his or her identity and to be raised by his or her parents.
Baby boxes have been the subject of several parliamentary speeches demanding their closure. Some elected representatives believe that the practice does not respect the rights of the child, is in breach of the obligation to declare the child's birth and poses a risk that newborn babies will be taken from their mother without her consent.
However, a majority in parliament and the government do not want to prohibit baby boxes. In a 2016 report, the cabinet examined the different support measures for pregnant women that exist in Switzerland. It concluded that institutions that help expectant mothers by providing advice and assistance should be encouraged as a matter of priority. It added that banning baby boxes could induce some mothers to abandon their child without its receiving proper medical care: “To prevent this, the cabinet believes we must be prepared to accept the negative aspects of baby hatches (violation of the child's right to know his or her origins and violation of the obligation to declare the birth). Saving a child's life weighs more heavily in the balance, by far, than guaranteeing him or her the right to know his or her origins.”
Do baby boxes really help save lives?
According to Swiss Aid for Mother and Child, since the first baby box was opened in 2001 the number of newborn babies found dead has dropped significantly. This assertion is based on the cases relayed by the media and figures provided by the police. Between 1996 and 2000, the association counted seven abandoned and dead babies, whereas between 2016 and 2020 there were only two.
Meanwhile, the government has found no evidence that the existence of baby hatches has led to an increase in the number of abandoned children. Considering that this arrangement can save lives, it recommends keeping them as an emergency solution, without enshrining them in law or prohibiting them.
Is the mother's anonymity really guaranteed?
A woman who deposits her newborn baby in a baby box is not guilty of any criminal offence and will therefore not be searched for, according to Swiss Aid for Mother and Child. Hospitals do not install surveillance cameras in these areas. The association nonetheless sends out an appeal via the local media encouraging the mother to come forward. According to the Swiss Civil Code, for adoption purposes it is possible to dispense with the consent of one of the parents if she or he is unknown or has no known residence.
Abandoning the newborn baby is the only way for mothers in Switzerland to remain anonymous. Many hospitals offer so-called confidential deliveries that guarantee the mother the utmost discretion: her personal details are transmitted only to the civil registration office and child protection authorities. The family and/or the father are not informed, and it is the adoptive parents who are listed in official records. But once the child turns 18, he or she has the right to know the identity of his or her biological mother.
Anonymous childbirth is not authorised in Switzerland, as it infringes the child's right to know his or her origins and the State's right to be notified of a new birth. It is, however, legal in Austria, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Russia and Slovakia.
Meanwhile, with the growth of international DNA databases, it will be increasingly difficult for parents to maintain their anonymity in the long term. Thanks to genetic testing offered by certain companies, one can find people who share the same genes – a cousin, grandparent, uncle or half-sister – and thus find one's roots.
Translated from French by Julia Bassam