The German Ethics Council presents its Opinion on the anonymous relinquishment of infants

The German Ethics Council has issued its first Opinion, entitled Anonymous Relinquishment of Infants: Tackling the Problem.

Baby drops, which have existed in Germany since 1999, and facilities for anonymous birth were established with the aim of preventing the abandonment and killing of infants. Estimates indicate that since these two kinds of facilities were introduced some 500 children have effectively become foundlings with permanently anonymous origins. The existing facilities for anonymous birth raise serious ethical and legal problems, in particular because they violate the right of the children concerned to a knowledge of their origins and to a relationship with their parents. Moreover, experience to date suggests that women at risk of killing or abandoning their newborn babies are not reached by the availability of these facilities. The ethical and legal problems posed by the anonymous relinquishment of infants are discussed in detail in the Ethics Council’s Opinion.

The public child and youth welfare bodies, independent-sector institutions and conflicted-pregnancy counselling centres offer an extensive range of effective kinds of assistance on a statutory basis to women, including women in extreme emergency situations, and ensure in particular that their children do not remain in ignorance of their origins and biological family. However, this assistance is not always taken up.

By means of its recommendations, the German Ethics Council wishes to help bring about a situation in which pregnant women and mothers can in emergency receive as effective assistance as possible without violating the rights of others – specifically, those of their children.

The Ethics Council recommends that the existing baby drops and facilities for anonymous birth be abolished. This should be accomplished by a process conducted jointly by all bodies with the relevant political responsibility. As an accompanying measure, more publicity should be given to the existing legally permitted facilities for helping pregnant women and mothers in situations of emergency or conflict. In addition, action should be taken to enhance trust in the legal facilities available.

As a further means of helping pregnant women and mothers in emergency situations, the Ethics Council suggests the introduction of a “law on the confidential relinquishment of infants with temporarily anonymous registration”. This would create a statutory foundation for aiding women in a serious situation of distress or conflict who feel that they need to conceal the fact of their maternity, by providing especially easy access to facilities to help them solve their problems by counselling and ongoing assistance with a guarantee of absolute confidentiality.

In its recommendations, the Ethics Council points out that in cases of immediate physical danger to the life and health of mother and child, it is undisputed that, on the basis of the duty to render assistance, the law governing emergency situations legitimizes the provision of medical care for a woman in childbirth even if she fails to disclose her identity. However, this obligation does not extend to the systematic availability of facilities for anonymous relinquishment of infants independently of the existence of an individual acute emergency situation, such as baby drops or facilities for anonymous birth, or to support with the preservation of anonymity once the acute emergency is over.

In cases where infants are nevertheless relinquished anonymously, the German Ethics Council considers certain minimum measures for protection of the rights of both the child and the parents to be necessary – in particular, immediate notification of the child’s birth to the youth welfare centre, and the appointment of a guardian independent of the institution where the child was relinquished anonymously.

In a supplementary position statement two members of the Council have indicated that, while they agreed with the Council’s recommendations – in particular, that the availability of facilities for the anonymous relinquishment of infants should be abolished – they did not consider the statutory provision for confidential birth proposed by the Council to be necessary, because the aim of offering women a confidential space to overcome their emergency situation could already be achieved by means of the existing legally permitted easy-access counselling and assistance services.

A group of six members noted in a dissenting position statement that they could not accept the recommendation that the existing facilities for the anonymous relinquishment of infants should be closed down immediately or gradually, because in their view these facilities might, for the small number of parents and women who were unable to avail themselves of the counselling centres, constitute a last resort offering a potential alternative to abandoning their children to their fate without anyone to care for them.

Opinion: Anonymous relinquishment of infants: tackling the problem