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China's Baby Hatches Are Getting Clogged

A baby hatch in Guangzhou received 260 babies, or about six a day, over the course of two months. Now, the orphanage to which the baby hatch is attached is over capacity and won't be accepting any more.
March 18, 2014, 6:09pm

Photo via Flickr user Azwari Nugara

Back in January of this year, Guangzhou, a megalopolis in southern China, opened China's 20th "baby safety island," a place where people could safely deposit their offspring. It received 260 babies, or about six a day, over the course of two months. Now, the orphanage to which the baby hatch is attached is over capacity and, according to the BBC, won't be taking any more kids.

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If you're American, you probably think I'm being glib when I say "baby hatch." Here, we call it a "safe surrender site," enabled by something called a Baby Moses Law, and we envision a more reassuring institution than a hatch. But European readers will be much more familiar with the term "baby hatch," a mechanism akin to a book return, only with much less security and scrutiny.

Image via Flickr user bluemeat

The Chinese variety is somewhere between the American and European baby hatches—like a tollbooth with a crib inside.

The original story, as reported by the Chinese tabloid Beijing Times, did an interesting tap dance, asking readers not to be too judgmental or pessimistic, saying the program wasn't a lost cause. But the paper also said authorities "have not done enough research and are not prepared to handle the crisis.”

State-owned media stayed in characteristic lockstep with the government, saying they will "have to fight against the immoral behavior of those who maliciously abandon the infants, while on the other hand we need a more comprehensive legal system to protect their welfare, as well as [a] support system for families with seriously ill or disabled children."

The crisis, and the corresponding government reaction, are going to be pinned by the American media as more fallout from 35 years of China's one-child policy.

Discouraging population growth is all well and good. China says they've prevented the births of 400 million babies with the policy. Demographers say it's more like 200 million. If you split the difference, it's approximately one nonexistent America. This resulted in the abandonment crisis, however. Then came rumors of horrible, deadly conditions in orphanages, and outright infanticide.

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As China has developed, the powers that be have arguably become more sensitive to the outrage of foreigners, but the country also has the huge ego of any major world power. So at the end of last year, the government announced that it would relax the one-child policy, along with advancing some other positions aimed at making China look like less of a terrifying place.

This came after years of slowly tightening restrictions on adoptions. The government rolled out rules that mandated no adoption by lesbians, obese people, people with facial deformities, people on Prozac, unmarried people, or people with less than $80,000 in assets. Reader, would you be able to adopt a Chinese baby?

The idea was image control. Having foreigners come in and rescue babies from your crappy country hurts. Not that America would know; it's not like richer countries come and adopt the poor children our society does nothing to look after. (That was sarcasm. Go back and click the link.) But wishing won't make people want to keep their babies, and the orphanage crisis in China just won't seem to go away.

Thus the baby-hatch idea, something tried-and-true in Europe as early as the 1600s (although those sometimes filled up too), but the hatch was unpalatable to the Chinese. I sent messages to China experts at several universities, asking them to give me some background about why the concept is so historically unpalatable, or to correct my misapprehension, and the response to my media requests was an extraordinarily uniform silence. I never even received so much as a "no thanks."

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Articles on the subject, some of which are very good, make Chinese people out to be repulsed by the nasty-sounding idea at first, and then they warmed to it. I'm guessing this is how anyone, in any culture, would react to the idea.

Image via Flickr user Salim Virij

I wanted to know a little about how the US was different, so I contacted Michael Weston, spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services, the authority that I would surrender a baby to if need be.

First, he told me that California ones aren't like the European hatches or the Chinese tollbooths. "They have to actually go in and hand the baby to someone and basically surrender the baby. They don’t have to answer any questions beyond that, but they do have to go in and physically hand the child to somebody," he said.

Then I asked him about the "return policy." Apparently you get 14 days to retrieve your surrendered infant. I asked him if anyone had done that. He didn't have the numbers, but he confirmed that, yes, at least someone has retrieved a baby after surrendering it.

When I tried to get him to talk to me about the larger societal implications of it, Michael wasn't much help. I tried to get him to comment on the "harm-reduction" principles behind baby hatches. Another example of harm reduction would be needle exchanges for heroin addicts. I wanted a comment about the big picture, but I couldn't get one. "I think it’s just in the category of, you know, child protection. It’s to protect the health and safety of children," he said.

I get the sense that big-picture thinking is common in Chinese bureaucracy. In fact, when you think in cold, utilitarian terms, an effective, large-scale population control program in the world's most populous country almost seems worth the odd story about a clogged baby hatch. To my mind, though, no matter how many buildings you're able to build, babies are cute, and no matter what we're trying to justify, we just need to protect them, as Michael said, even when our plans suffer because of it. I seriously doubt the average Chinese person would feel any differently.

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