Mon, Nov 21, 2005 - Page 6 News List

`Babyboxes' spark ethical debate in Brno


It looks like a coal chute or a large mailbox innocuously attached to the side of a building on a barren side-street in Brno.

But get a little closer and an odd sign comes into view. In English, the sign identifies the grey door with a bar handle as a "Babybox."

Smaller print in Czech explains how the box can be used to anonymously deposit an unwanted infant in a hospital's care.

And therein lies the crux of a debate that has divided health experts over the recent installations of babyboxes at two hospitals in the Czech Republic, first in Prague last June and five months later in Brno.

The hospitals, city councils and non-profit foundations that support the project say distraught or poverty-stricken mothers should have the option to give up their babies safely, without fear of repercussion, by sliding them into the box and quietly slipping away.

"From time to time we read in the news that someone found a dead child," said Roman Hanus, a Prague lawyer and president of the Statim foundation, which spearheaded the babybox programme.

"We think this is one of the ways to help."

But the Czech Ministry of Health, state police, medical ethicists and doctors from the Czech Medical Chamber who studied the issue in a special commission strongly oppose the legal yet controversial project.

"The installation of a babybox at an institution would be an unambiguous step backward not only in terms of preventative health care but for all of society as well," declared the health ministry, on the basis of the commission's conclusions.

"After carefully considering all the medical, legal, technical and ethical viewpoints, the Ministry of Health can not support ... the setup and operation of a babybox," the ministry said.

The debate also touches the nation's mindset.

Dr. Ludmila Brazdova of the Brothers of Mercy Hospital, which is now equipped with Brno's babybox, blames the government position on "the communist past which is still alive in our country and our minds."

Before the 1989 overthrow of communism, unwanted and orphaned Czech children were raised in large boarding homes. The belief was that institutional care "is better than being brought up in families," Brazdova said. "It's nonsense, but that was how it was."

Hanus said the babybox project actually restores a pre-World War II system whereby Czech hospitals and churches cared for foundlings.

"It was a standard system for poor people," he said. "We would like to continue this tradition."

The health ministry argues that a babybox strips children of certain rights, including the right to know one's identity, origin and parents.

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