A baby hatch is a place where an infant may be left if the mother is unwilling or unable to care for it. An old societal concept, baby hatches are traditionally meant as an alternative to practices such as abortion, abandonment, or infanticide. Baby hatch facilities are not legal in all countries, especially in those where the abandonment of infants is considered a prosecutable crime.
The location of a baby hatch may be dependent on the region. In parts of Europe, baby hatches are typically connected to clinics, hospitals, churches, or social service centers. In the United States, where the abandonment of infants is protected in most regions under “safe haven” laws, babies may be taken to fire or police facilities as well as hospitals.
The design of a baby hatch usually puts a priority on the anonymity of the mother. In many cases, the hatch consists of a small door that opens into a cradle or infant-sized bed. Once the baby is placed in the bed, a motion-sensor alarm deploys, triggering caretakers to come for the infant. The alarm may be briefly delayed, to allow the mother to depart the scene. In other systems, a bell or buzzer device may be pressed after the baby is deposited, in order to summon caretakers.
Baby hatches have long been seen as a preventative measure against infanticide or abortions. Since many regions require women to register when entering to give birth or have an abortion, women desirous of anonymity may be driven to seek out illegal abortion services or have the baby at home, then kill it or discard it. Women fearing deportation, criminal prosecution, or other retaliatory measures may be able to use a baby hatch rather than opting for tragic alternatives.
Many baby hatches have provisions that allow a mother or guardian to reclaim the child within a certain time period. Some facilities encourage mothers to leave a small keepsake with the baby that can be used for identification, should the mother change her mind. After the time period has lapsed, babies typically are moved from temporary to permanent state custody, and may be given up for adoption.
The use of baby hatches is controversial, even in areas that permit their existence. Critics worry that mothers will be tempted to use the hatch rather than seek alternatives that would allow them to remain in custody of their child. Some fear it provides an easy option to mothers, allowing them to abandon their familial responsibilities with no consequences. Supporters suggest that, while not an ideal solution to the problem of unwanted children, baby hatches at least allow a mother to safely abandon a child without risk to the infant's health. Though many suggest it would be preferable to create a society in which hatches are unnecessary, they are often touted as a useful interim measure.