Shelters for dumped babies 'the lesser of two evils'

Critics say facilities to abandon infants only encourage bad behaviour, but most media praise this pragmatic approach

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 6:36am

The problem of newborn babies being abandoned in parks, hospitals, public toilets or even dumpsters - often by unmarried mothers, migrants or others unable to afford health care - has long troubled mainland authorities. Many of the infants die of starvation, exposure or illness.

So, two years ago, Hebei's provincial capital Shijiazhuang quietly pioneered a radical solution. It established an anonymous drop-off point - a so-called abandoned baby island - where parents could leave unwanted children and give them a fighting chance for survival.

Of the 26 babies left at the shelter since January last year, 18, or more than two-thirds, had lived. That was well above the usual 50 per cent mortality rate for abandoned babies.

Positive results aside, the Ministry of Civil Affairs' efforts to expand the programme nationwide this month have drawn public criticism. Some have questioned whether the government is encouraging parents to break the law and abandon children they would otherwise try to raise.

A Xinhua report that one baby island in Nanjing received nine sick infants in just 10 days, including several from outside Jiangsu province, only fuelled opposition.

The report said that parents - inspired by media reports about the shelter - had driven from Anhui , Henan and Shandong to abandon their children. An official at the children's shelter said that the number of babies had exceeded its capacity and some parents had been turned away.

Other state media, however, rushed to defend the programme, calling on the public to be patient and give the shelters time to work.

"It is so odd that we can tolerate the misery of babies being dumped on the streets for dozens of years, but worry about the warmth of a shelter after only a dozen days," said an editorial in the Yangtse Evening Post.

"People see only the nonexistent risks of harm from the shelter without the least regard for the catastrophic consequences to the abandoned babies if the shelter is scrapped."

The Huashang Daily argued for the creation of more baby islands to meet the demand.

"If every children's welfare institute in every city had such an island perhaps we wouldn't see an increase in abandoned babies at all," the newspaper said in a commentary. "It can't be wrong to follow the principle of 'life first'. Until the social security system guarantees effective treatment for every baby, the baby islands should remain open."

A commentary published on the website of the Guangming Daily said the shelter only provided a way to keep abandoned babies alive and was not intended as a solution to the problem of abandonment. It blamed the problem on low levels of social-security support, uneven health conditions and increased rates of birth defects.

The Xiandai Jinbao argued that a rush of abandoned babies at one shelter did not necessarily prove that more people were abandoning their babies.

"Even though such shelters may make those who abandon babies feel less guilty and they in some ways tolerate ugly behaviour, it is still necessary and the right thing to do," the paper said in an editorial. "A civilised society cannot tolerate having babies dumped and starved or frozen to death."

The Xiandai Jinbao said the shelters represented the "lesser of two evils" and compared the policy to encouraging sex workers to use condoms even though prostitution is illegal.

It proposed increasing funding and staff at such shelters because the abandoned babies had put more pressure on children's welfare institutes. Other measures, such as compulsory pregnancy screenings and marriage physicals were necessary but could not replace the baby islands, it said.

"The government should not walk out on the babies who have already been abandoned by their parents," the paper said.