An ethico-legal case for baby hatches in South Africa

In this study, I analyse the ethical and legal issues on the operation of baby hatches in South Africa. There are no official statistics on South Africa’s annual number of infant abandonments or infanticides. Since 1999, baby hatches began emerging across the country for parents (usually mothers) to anonymously surrender infants and relinquish parental responsibility without endangering the child. These facilities have been established by charities and non-governmental organizations, and as thereis no provision for baby hatches in South African law, these are illegal. Similar facilities operate in other countries and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has responded with disapproval. In this report, I examine South Africa’s legal child protection framework (including international and domestic law) and how it responds to infant abandonment and infanticide. I presentan ethical basis for the operation of baby hatches by applying the principles of the harm reduction paradigm, showing that such relinquishments are (1) morally permissible as they improve the health outcomes for the child, and (2) morally appropriate in the South African context. For comparison, andto enrich this research, I also examine the USA’s safe haven laws and France’s anonymous birth law asexamples of legislative responses to prevent infant endangerment. Baby hatches, safe haven laws, and anonymous birth are all interventions to intercept infanticide and unsafe infant abandonment; and they are each innovations outside the parameters of international child law.
A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment for the degree of MSc (Med) in Bioethics and Health Law, Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg