When the alarm goes off at Jikei Hospital in southern Japan, nurses run down a spiral staircase. Their mission: to rescue a baby left behind in the country’s only baby hatch.
For 15 years, the clinic has been the only place in Japan where a child can be left anonymously and safely.
The pioneering hospital in the Kumamoto region also offers a 24/7 pregnancy support hotline and the country’s only “confidential birth” program.
This has made it the target of criticism, but Chief Physician Takeshi Hasuda considers the facility an essential safety net.
“There are women who are ashamed that they have done something terrible (by getting pregnant) and are so scared,” he told AFP. “For these women, a place like ours, which doesn’t exclude anyone and makes them think ‘even I’ll be welcome’, counts a lot, I think.”
Nurses try to get to the hatch within a minute of the alarm going off, with its stork illustrations and meticulously cared for baby bed.
“When we find mothers in the area, we ask them to share their stories with us,” said hospital worker Saori Taminaga.
They offer to monitor the health of mothers, offer support and encourage them to leave information that can help a child learn about their parentage later on.
“If they try to go, we hold on and keep pushing until just before they leave the terrain. If that happens, it’s time for us to give up.”
The Catholic-run hospital opened its baby door in 2007, following a German plan.
Baby doors have been around the world for centuries and are used today in South Korea, Pakistan, and the United States, among others.
They have been banned in some countries, such as Great Britain, and criticized by the UN for violating a child’s right to know their parents and identities.
‘Alienated by society’
Jikei Hospital sees the hatch as a way to prevent child abuse and deaths in Japan, where police abandoned 27 children in 2020 and at least 57 children died from abuse the year before.
Hasuda says children left in hospital are also those who “were the result of prostitution, rape and incest”, with mothers having 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 have become alienated from society,” he said.
A total of 161 babies and toddlers have been dropped into hospital — some from the Tokyo area, about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away, and beyond.
According to Chiaki Shirai, an expert on reproduction and adoption studies at Shizuoka University, the hatch has also met with skepticism in Japan, in part because of traditional ideas about what a family is.
The country uses a registration system that records births, deaths and marriages in a family going back generations. The crucial piece of administrative data also shapes beliefs about family structure.
It has “enshrined the idea in Japanese society that anyone who has given birth to a child should raise the child,” to the point where children are almost considered “the property” of parents, Shirai told AFP. “Children who are abandoned and listed on the registry as having no family are heavily stigmatized.”
Despite the anonymity the hatch provides, child welfare officials usually try to trace the families of babies left in the hospital.
As a result, about 80 percent later learned their family’s identity and 20 percent returned to parents or relatives.
‘It’s all your fault’
Jikei Hospital has expanded the services it provides to marginalized women by adding a “confidential birth” program to a pregnancy hotline that receives thousands of calls a year.
Two babies have been delivered as part of the program, which the hospital says is designed to discourage risky, lonely home births.
Both mothers told the Jikei that they had been abused by their parents and wanted their children to be given up for adoption, Hasuda said.
Under the scheme, a mother’s identity is revealed to a single staffer and kept confidential for possible disclosure to the child later.
The program has also faced opposition — and while the government has not declared it illegal, it has resisted legislation to formalize it.
Shirai said women who resort to confidential births or baby hatching are being condemned for not choosing other options, including abortion.
“‘You could have chosen an abortion, but didn’t. Now it’s all your fault,’ is the kind of sentiment,” she said.
Abortion has been legal in Japan since 1948 and is available up to 22 weeks, but requires permission from a male partner. Exceptions are only granted in cases of rape or domestic violence, or if the partner is dead or missing.
Hasuda also believes that society often prefers to blame women rather than help them.
“Society’s motivation to sympathize with or help them seems low, if not completely non-existent,” he said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by DailyExpertNews staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)