In May last year, Japan's first baby hatch opened amid much controversy at a hospital in Kumamoto. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa criticized it, while the Catholic hospital insisted it was set up to protect babies from unnecessary death and child abuse. Finally, the local city council approved it, saying there was nothing illegal about the hatch.
On March 31 this year, Kyodo News reported that in March, four babies were left in the hatch, one of whom was handicapped. Asked if this was true, Yukiko Tajiri, the hospital’s nurse administrator, said, “We don't make any official comments on the baby hatch.”
Professor Akemi Morita, of Toyo University, says: “Many parents of handicapped or disabled children have 'do-or-die' feelings. They say they don't receive any support from neighbors in their community. Since handicapped children need special care, their parents can become physically and mentally exhausted. In addition, they are feeling guilty, thinking it is their fault that their children were born handicapped. I can understand how some might give up on raising their children and drop them off at the baby hatch.”
A hospital worker did admit that a handicapped baby was left in the hatch last autumn. In that case, the parents apparently had a change of heart, and after communicating with the hospital by email, they came to the hospital to pick their baby up.
The main criticism of the hatch is that it is being used by some parents who refuse to face reality. Kaoru Matsumura, head of an association for parents with handicapped children, says: “The purpose of the baby hatch is to support single mothers who have no support and who cannot raise their children for some reason. I think it shouldn't be used to drop off handicapped babies. I, as the parent of a handicapped child, think the hatch makes people feel easy about abandoning handicapped kids.”
Obstetrician Koji Samejima says, “The baby hatch was originally supposed to provide parents with a choice in the extreme situation when they can't raise their children. But now, it has become a matter of whether they want or don't want to raise their child. I have no idea why some parents left their handicapped babies in the hatch. But if they left the babies just because they don't want to raise them, they should be reprimanded."
The baby hatch in Japan is modeled on Germany where about 80 baby hatches are installed nationwide. But there are differences in the two countries' welfare policies. Koyo Sakamoto, a specialist in social welfare, says, “In Germany, it is not common for handicapped babies to be left in the hatch. One of the reasons for this is that they have a generous welfare policy. The government provides enough support to handicapped people, and economic issues are not that significant for parents, unlike Japan. In Japan, welfare policy hardly takes into account the situation of the handicapped and their families.”
Media coverage of the baby hatch is also being debated in Japan. Takaaki Hattori, sociology professor at Rikkyo University, says, “I don't think it is good for the media to report that a handicapped baby was left in the hatch. Some people would feel, 'I see. I can do the same.' The media should not have reported that the baby was handicapped.”
On the contrary, Professor Keiichi Katsura at Rissei University takes a different viewpoint, saying, “Considering the harsh reality that a lot of parents who have handicapped children suffer from people's indifference to themselves in society and from the absence of necessary support, it is worth reporting the fact. Although the privacy of abandoned babies should be protected, the public should have an opportunity to discuss the issue. If some newspapers or TV stations intentionally ignore the fact, it will be problematic.”
Toyo University's Prof Morita says the issue of disabled has always been divisive in Japanese society. “A lot of parents tend to think their children are unhappy because of their disabilities and they hide them away in shame. They also think they are alone in their dilemma. But I want them to know that there are many parents like them. Advice on child-raising is available for them at local governments and community organizations. We cannot naively criticize parents or hospitals, but we should ask why so many parents are willing to give up their babies in a wealthy society like Japan.”
In olden times, handicapped children used to be called “Fukuko" (happy children) in some regions. People appreciated them as a gift from god and believed they would bring wealth and prosperity to the family. (Translated by Taro Fujimoto)© Japan Today