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A Gentler Name for the Baby Drop Box

The Baby Drop Box is now receiving a lot of attention. Modeling it after the Baby Drop Box in Germany (also called Baby Hutch), a hospital in Kumamoto started offering it as a way of saving abandoned infants. Germany is not the only country in Europe to have them; it appears that Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Italy also have similar systems. Neither the Kumamoto prefectural government nor the Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare has taken a negative stance, which indicates that more Baby Drop Boxes will spring up around the country. Nevertheless, I find it truly deplorable that child-rearing and our affluent society have come to this, both in Japan and the world.

In 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by the United Nations, marking the first time that the rights of children were recognized in 800-year history of human rights. From the viewpoint of children's rights, abandonment, battered child syndrome, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, etc., should be considered forms of child maltreatment. And this also applies to the Baby Drop Box. This is because children who have come into the world have the right to be raised and the right to grow up.

Nevertheless, in all societies, the abandoned child has a long history. This is true of both Europe and Japan. When the Portuguese doctor and missionary, Irmão Luis de Almeida, visited Japan during the middle of the reign of Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1550s), he remarked on the piles of children's corpses on the riverbank of Oita. Mostly likely, many were infants who had been abandoned soon after birth. Almeida established a hospital and orphanage soon afterwards.

In terms of personal experience, when I was a pediatrician at Tokyo University Hospital in the 1970s, there was a rash of coin-locker babies, or infants who were abandoned in coin lockers, and this turned into a social problem. Over twenty years after end of WWII, Japan had become an affluent country and coin lockers had become a convenient feature in stations. Before then, bags were kept at the baggage office for a fee, but coin lockers made it possible to avoid human service. Just by inserting some 100-yen coins, the coin locker became a safe metal box where something could be stored until retrieved. People who couldn't or didn't want to raise their children just abandoned them in these coin lockers. No doubt, some infants lived for several days and others cried weakly. Even the phenomenon of abandoned children has changed with the times according to government policy, religious views, and social beliefs.

Of course, many mothers who abandon their infants are thought to be deeply mentally disturbed. I think a number of them find themselves too poor to raise a child, and with regret, leave the nicely dressed baby at the doorstep of the temple or wealthy person's house, hoping that someone will come along and notice. In contrast, I feel that it is unforgivable to simply abandon a child on the street and in a coin locker.

An abandoned child in English is called a "foundling," and it means "a cute child who has been found." In Europe such children were often left at a church, and perhaps this reflects a gentle attitude that is derived from Christianity. The Japanese word for this is closer to "throw away," but this is not really a term a mother would use, but rather what the person who finds the child would say.

The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, in London, where I studied for the three years in the 1960s had begun as a home for "foundlings," and this is the case with many of the pediatric hospitals in Europe. In view of this history, the idea of establishing a Baby Drop Box at German hospitals may have its roots in the relationship between the pediatric hospital and "foundlings."

Even countries influenced by Christian culture have a problem with abandoned children, so it is not entirely strange that Japan would have a problem with coin-locker babies. The problem of abandoned children is a worldwide one. But, the Baby Drop Box is somehow very sad in that it seems to treat children as things. If maternity clinics and hospitals are going to establish them to save children's lives, I would want a nicer, gentler name. One suggestion in Kumamoto is to call them "the stork crib," and I hope everyone will try to think up a name that is nice and gentle.
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