The idea of the Window of Life (Okno Życia) – sometimes called a Baby Box or Baby Hatch – is nothing new. Communities around the world have had facilities for mothers to leave their young children in the care of others, anonymously, since medieval times.
In Poland, there are around 50 Windows of Life, in all of the major cities, and the first in modern times opened in Kraków in 2006. Developed in Poland through the Roman Catholic Caritas organisation, they are warm, safe and comfortable havens, where babies can be placed by mothers who cannot, for whatever reason, cope. When a child is put in a Window of Life, an alarm alerts the nuns responsible for overseeing it. Caritas says that around 40 children have been left since the modern boxes appeared in Polish cities. Although there have been two cases in recent weeks, in Szczecin and in Łódź, this is definitely out of the ordinary. Windows of Life are hardly being used to justify promiscuity, or as the ultimate morning after pill.
As a social answer to dealing with a situation in which the child might otherwise come to harm, the Window of Life is certainly humane. Yet to use such a facility must place incredible psychological strain upon a mother – who is unlikely to be in a very good state of mind anyway, under such circumstances. And, according to the United Nations, it’s bad for the child too.
In November, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), said Windows of Life contravened a child’s right to identify their parents if separated from them. The UNCRC called on the European Union to ban the Baby Boxes, saying that the state had a duty to protect the child’s rights.
But Archbishop Józef Kowałczyk, Primate of Poland, said that Windows of Life were entwined with the ‘culture, conscience and sensitivity’ of the nation. And the Church in Poland is convinced that Windows of Life encourage women to give birth rather than seek abortion on demand – illegal in Poland, but by no means difficult for a Pole to obtain abroad – and protecting what it says is the unborn child’s right to life.
All well and good, but surely the most effective answer to the problem of unwanted pregnancy is simply not to get pregnant in the first place. And this can only be achieved by following one of two paths – sexual abstinence, or contraception/sterilisation. Attitudes to these are coloured largely by conscience and an individual’s world view. On the one hand, conscience may dictate that contraception or sterilisation is unacceptable, in which case the only way to avoid unwanted pregnancy is abstinence. On the other hand, sex is not just a means of procreation; it is a powerful mechanism for bonding, and among those things that humans need on a very basic level is a connection with other human beings. So sexual abstinence has the potential to create a serious triangle of inner conflict, between that need for a human connection, a perceived crime of conscience, and a desire to avoid pregnancy.
Windows of Life allow that human connection to happen with conscience fully unsheathed, and offer a solution if unwanted pregnancy is the result. For sure, a concerted national campaign promoting and encouraging contraception would be a far better answer, but in Poland it would be ludicrous to think that this is going to happen any time soon. The Baby Box is nowhere near perfect but, given that people are going to have sex, that for some of those people contraception is taboo, and that unwanted pregnancy is sometimes the result, Baby Boxes serve a purpose as an option of last resort for any mother whose mental or emotional health may already be damaged to the point of endangering her child, and for whom straightforward adoption is not an option. Against such a background, outlawing Windows of Life might put unwanted babies at serious risk of immediate harm – rather than offering them the protection in later life that the UNCRC advocates.
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