When the alarm sounds at Jikei Hospital in southern Japan, nurses run down a spiral staircase. Your mission: to rescue a baby left in the country’s only baby hatch.
For 15 years, the clinic has been the only place in Japan where a child can be abandoned anonymously and safely.
The pioneering hospital in the Kumamoto area also offers a 24/7 pregnancy hotline and the country’s only “confidential childbirth program.”
These made it the butt of criticism, but chief physician Takeshi Hasuda sees the facility as a vital safety net.
“There are women out there who are ashamed that they did something horrible (by getting pregnant) and are so scared,” he told AFP.
“For these women, a place like ours that doesn’t exclude anyone and makes them think ‘even I will be welcome’ is very important, I think.”
Nurses try to arrive at the hatch with their stork illustrations and carefully tended cot within a minute of the alarm going off.
“When we find mothers who are nearby, we ask them if they would like to share their stories with us,” said hospital worker Saori Taminaga.
They offer to check mothers’ health status, provide support and encourage them to leave information that could help a child later learn its origins.
“If they try to leave, we will persist and keep pushing until they leave the premises. When that happens, it’s time for us to give up.”
The Catholic hospital opened its baby hatch in 2007 based on the German model.
Baby hatches have been around the world for centuries and are now used in South Korea, Pakistan and the United States, among others.
But they have been banned in some countries, like the UK, and criticized by the UN for violating a child’s right to know their parents and identity.
– ‘Estranged from society’ –
Jikei Hospital sees the hatch as a way to prevent child abuse and deaths in Japan, where police recorded 27 abandoned children in 2020 and at least 57 children died from abuse the year before.
Hasuda says the children abandoned in the hospital include those who were “the result of prostitution, rape and incest,” and mothers have nowhere else to turn.
“I think the most important role our baby hatch system has played so far is to provide a sort of last resort for women who are becoming alienated from society,” he said.
A total of 161 babies and young children were delivered to the hospital – some from the Tokyo region, some 1,000 kilometers away, and beyond.
But the hatch has also met with skepticism in Japan, partly because of traditional ideas about what makes a family, according to Chiaki Shirai, an expert in reproductive and adoption studies at Shizuoka University.
The country uses a registration system that records births, deaths and marriages in a family for generations. The crucial administrative data also shape views about family structure.
It has “ingrained the idea in Japanese society that whoever gives birth to a child must raise the child” to the point where children are almost considered the “property” of their parents, Shirai told AFP.
“Children who are abandoned and registered as familyless are heavily stigmatized.”
Despite the anonymity the hatch offers, child welfare officials typically attempt to trace the families of infants abandoned at the hospital.
As a result, around 80 percent later found out the identity of their family, and 20 percent returned to their parents or relatives.
– ‘It’s all your fault’ –
Jikei Hospital has expanded its services for marginalized women, adding a “confidential birth program” to a pregnancy hotline that receives thousands of calls a year.
Two babies were delivered under the program, which the hospital says aims to prevent risky single births at home.
Both mothers told the Jikei they had been abused by their parents and wanted their children put up for adoption, Hasuda said.
Under the program, a mother’s identity is revealed to a single staff member and is kept confidential, to be revealed later to the child.
The program has also faced opposition – and while the government has not outlawed it, it has pushed back laws to formalize it.
Shirai said women who resort to confidential birth or the baby hatch face the verdict for not choosing other options, including abortion.
“‘You could have chosen to have an abortion, but you didn’t. It’s all your fault now,’ is the kind of feeling,” she said.
Abortion has been legal in Japan since 1948 and is available up to week 22, but consent from a male partner is required. Exceptions are only granted in cases of rape or domestic violence, or when the partner is dead or missing.
Hasuda also feels that society often prefers to blame women rather than help them.
“Society’s motivation to sympathize with them or help them seems small, if not non-existent,” he said.
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