Press Release 02/2011

The controversial case of baby drops

One year after publishing its Opinion on the anonymous relinquishment of infants, the German Ethics Council has held a discussion with representatives from practice, the media and politics on what developments have occurred since then.

In November 2009, the Ethics Council recommended that the statutory basis should be created for relinquishment of infants on a confidential basis and that the possibilities of anonymous birth and baby drops, which are unlawful but which till now have been tolerated, should be discontinued. Parallel to this, the availability of public information on the existing comprehensive legally sanctioned assistance facilities for pregnant women and mothers in situations of distress or conflict should be expanded.

Christiane Woopen, the Vice-Chair of the Ethics Council, began by introducing the Council's observations. She reported that although the possibility of relinquishing infants anonymously had been created with the intention of avoiding children being killed or abandoned, it was improbable that this aim would actually be achieved, in the light of statistics and research findings from forensic psychiatry. In addition, the relinquishment of the child did not in itself solve the women's emergency or conflict situation. It was necessary to proceed on the assumption that in many cases the women who had taken advantage of the possibility of anonymous relinquishment without being involved in counselling suffered even more at a later date. The facilities had serious consequences for the psychological development of the children, who may suffer all their lives from the anonymity of their parentage, and in addition for mothers, and sometimes also for fathers, who have been excluded from contact to their biological children for the rest of their lives. Woopen emphasised: „It is therefore not a question of a conflict of values between the right to life and the right to knowledge of one's parentage, but of additional assistance for the women."

In 2009, the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth commissioned from the Deutsches Jugendinstitut (DJI - German Youth Institute) the first nationwide study on numbers of cases, facilities and contexts of anonymous child relinquishment. The objective, method and first findings of this study were presented by Joelle Coutinho, the research officer for this project. The study contains a survey of the numbers of cases and of the procedures, prepared by means of written questionnaires sent nationwide to 591 youth welfare offices and 343 agencies offering facilities for the anonymous relinquishment of children, and also qualitative interviews, and in addition it examines the psychosocial situation and motivation of women affected. Coutinho reported great differences in the motives and the degree of professionalisation of the organisations and in the cooperation and procedures following the anonymous relinquishment of a child.

Maria Elisabeth Thoma, Federal Chair of Sozialdienst katholischer Frauen (SkF– Catholic Women’s Welfare Service), reported on the discussion of the opinion; she stated that the individual associations in the SkF had had different perceptions of the latter. The SkF's federal association had expressly welcomed it. However, the local associations wished to maintain the existing baby drops, at all events as long as there was no good, tried and tested alternative. The Ethics Council's proposal for a statutory arrangement for confidential birth was welcomed, because this would mean that there was at last a reliable legal framework for confidential facilities.

The science journalist Volker Stollorz presented a media analysis of the press reporting on the Ethics Council's Opinion, co-authored with the communication scientist Markus Lehmkuhl. He stated that in its Opinion the Ethics Council had attempted to remove the empirical basis from an intuitively plausible but only speculatively founded assumption that baby drops could save lives. However, the analysis showed that a differentiated discussion in the media had not been achieved. The only subject that had been taken up in substance was the majority recommendation of closing baby drops, in which the Ethics Council had not succeeded in convincing the public. It had not been made clear that this recommendation was made against the background of the conviction that there is no conflict between the right to life and the right to knowledge of one's own parentage. But the reporting in the media had placed this alleged conflict in the centre.

The final item on the programme was a podium discussion with Ingrid Fischbach, the vice chair of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Ulrike Herpich-Behrens, Senate Department for Education, Science and Research of the Land  Berlin, Maria Geiss-Wittmann, chair of Donum Vitae  in Bavaria, Volker Stollorz and Council member Weyma Lübbe.

Ingrid Fischbach reported that all attempts in the last years to make anonymous relinquishment of infants legal had ended without results. Before an initiative for a statutory arrangement for the confidential relinquishment of infants, it had been decided to wait for the DJI study. It needed to be determined in particular for what reasons women reject the legal facilities and wish to remain anonymous and how they can best be helped in this situation. It was urgently necessary for there to be a statutory arrangement following this, for the current facilities for anonymous relinquishment of infants were unlawful.

Ulrike Herpich-Behrens stated that the youth welfare offices and the Senate Department had found the Opinion very helpful for their work, since it made possible a differentiated discussion of the problems of the facilities. She reported particularly problematic cases in Berlin known to her and the difficulties which arise as the result of the lack of statutory provisions.

Maria Geiss-Wittmann emphasised that in order to protect life one must above all reach women. The more successful this was, the more successfully children were protected. Her association agreed with the specific proposals of the Council for a solution; its own model of handing over the baby direct person-to-person was largely similar to this. She therefore favoured anonymous birth and anonymous relinquishment of infants but rejected the baby drop.

Weyma Lübbe challenged the argument "if only one life is saved, it is worth doing". She argued that in its main position statement, the Ethics Council had not set out clearly enough that in its view baby drops were not justified even if the claim that it protected lives could actually be proved in very rare individual cases. A very small reduction in the risk of children being killed, which baby drops offer at best, could be weighed against other interests and rights such as the right to know one's own parentage. Such a weighing of interests was constantly carried out in other social areas. But the proposal of "confidential birth with temporarily anonymous registration" was presumably unrealistic as an alternative for the same category of persons, since these were persons without sufficient trust in personal contact.

In the discussion with the plenum, questions on continued toleration of the unlawful facilities were addressed, as was the necessity to continue considering how women in emergency or conflict situations can be reached. Fischbach emphasised that the legislature had a duty to create clearcut provisions. It was also to be anticipated that children relinquished anonymously would later place the blame for their fate in not knowing their own parentage on the state.

The live audio recording of the event and the Opinion can be accessed at