Calls flood Kumamoto hospital as it opens first baby hatch

Kyodo

Jikei Hospital in the city of Kumamoto was flooded with phone inquiries Thursday, the day it opened Japan’s first baby hatch, allowing people to anonymously leave babies there.

Jikei Hospital opened the “konotori no yurikago” (stork cradle) hatch, which is effectively an incubator with access from outside and inside the facility, at noon.

The hatch has been criticized as a way to encourage the abandonment of babies, but supporters see it as a way to save the lives of infants who cannot be cared for.

Taiji Hasuda, president of the hospital’s operating company and the driving force behind the German-inspired project, said he is both happy and nervous.

“I’d like to see the project develop into a window for consultation for troubled people,” he said. “I know there are pros and cons. But what is most important is to save the lives of babies.”

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remained critical of the baby hatch and said he wants parents to consult the government or local administrative authorities before giving up on their babies.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the top government spokesman, said it is impermissible for parents to abandon their babies.

“Fundamentally, it’s parents who must raise their babies by themselves,” Shiozaki said. “It must be the government’s duty to extend some help for parents who cannot raise their babies for various reasons.”

The 50-cm-long, 60-cm-wide cover of the first-floor baby hatch was unlocked at noon, allowing anyone to open it from the outside. The hatch is basically an incubator accessible from two sides. When a newborn is deposited, an alarm will notify hospital staff.

The hospital said it has been inundated with phone calls about pregnancy and the baby hatch since early Thursday morning.

Kumamoto city officials said babies left at the hospital will be sent to infant homes after being cared for at the hospital.

The babies will be adopted or sent to nurseries if the parents remain unknown or are unable to raise them, the officials said.

But local police said it is still possible for parents to be criminally prosecuted if the babies are found to have been abused or left in a debilitated condition.

A senior Kumamoto Prefectural Police official said any cases will be carefully investigated.

Article 218 of the Penal Code sets penalties for those who neglect their duty to protect infants, the elderly, the disabled or sick people for whom they are guardians.

Kumamoto Mayor Seishi Koyama, who approved the baby hatch plan, told a news conference Thursday that the city will cooperate closely with the hospital and various parties to ensure the baby hatch works.

But he also said, “Japanese society should become one where such a facility is not needed.”

Kumamoto Gov. Yoshiko Shiotani said the hatch is a last resort for saving babies’ lives. She called on the public to share the perception that it is not intended to encourage parents to abandon their babies.

Gunma precursor

MAEBASHI, Gunma Pref. (Kyodo) A precursor of Japan’s first baby hatch, which opened Thursday in Kumamoto, existed about 20 years ago in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, enabling people to leave babies anonymously.

The late Hiroshi Shinagawa, known for building a children’s home modeled on a radio drama broadcast after World War II, erected a hut called “tenshi no yado”(angel’s house) in 1986. Shinagawa died in 1999 at age 83.

The small hut contained a bed and was left unattended. Ten babies were left in the hut over a span of about six years before it closed in February 1992 after a dead baby was found on the bed. Staff registered the babies and became their guardians. None of the parents returned to collect their babies.