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New centers for abandoned babies spark debate in China

'Baby hatches' are safer but help parents dump disabled kids, say critics

New centers for abandoned babies spark debate in China

A nurse feeds a baby who was dumped in a sewage pipe in Jinhua, Zhejiang province in May (picture: AFP Photo) reporter, Shenzhen

February 10, 2014

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When a 22-year-old mother dumped her newborn baby in a sewage pipe in Jinhua, eastern Zhejiang province, in May last year, the case provoked a flurry of angry posts on Chinese blogging sites and extensive coverage in media around the world. Then on December 3, a newborn baby was found in a Beijing dumpster with its umbilical cord still attached. It was dead by the time medics arrived.

For years, China refused to open controversial centers which would make it safer – but more convenient – for parents to abandon their children. But in July 2011, the first “baby safety island” or "baby hatch" as they are known in China, was opened as a pilot in Shijiazhuang, 300km southwest of Beijing.

“We can’t change the abandonment but we can change the result of it,” said Han Jinhong, director of the center, during an interview on state-run CCTV.

The Chinese government appears to finally agree. In August, the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a notice announcing that big cities in all 31 provinces could set up abandonment centers by the end of this year. Provincial capitals including Xiamen and Xi’an have already opened their own “baby hatch,” and Guangzhou followed suit last month.

These centers are small but well equipped with a cot, incubator and oxygen supply. Parents put the children they want to abandon in the room, press a delayed alarm and in a few minutes police officers and professional medical staff arrive and take care of the child. There is no camera in the room and police do not investigate.

Abandoning children remains illegal in China. But the country has struggled to contain the side effects of its single-child policy which has led parents to prioritize healthy boys, even if it sometimes means disowning their offspring: some 100,000 children – mostly newborns – are abandoned in China every year. When Nanjing opened an abandonment center on December 10, it took just two hours before a child was left there.

Although a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center found 76 percent of Chinese support the country’s single-child policy, critics have routinely pointed out that it has skewed the ratio of males to females, and given desperate parents increased motivation to abandon disabled children.

This reality has prompted a moral debate in China where the single-child policy has been enforced – and slowly eased – since the early 1980s.

In a 2012 online survey by the Chinese micro-blogging site Sina Weibo asking for views on abandonment centers, respondents were routinely scathing of the government.

“If we had done well on welfare security for the handicapped – especially for children – how many parents would want to throw away their kids? Baby safety islands are not a magnifier of humanity, but a mirror of government conscience,” wrote one blogger under the name Invincible Pupu.

Ten days after Guangzhou opened its abandonment center just before the Chinese New Year, it had already received 33 babies, all of whom had serious diseases. Among them, 10 were diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Despite reports that abandonment centers are attracting large numbers of disabled children, many Chinese argue they remain the lesser of two social evils.

Liu, a young mother who works in a factory in Shenzhen, the mainland gateway to Hong Kong an hour’s drive from Guangzhou, says that mothers would give up their babies regardless of whether Chinese cities provide new abandonment centers.

“If you don’t want to, you wouldn’t do that no matter how good the island is,” she says. “But poor babies could have a shelter and be attended to.”

A survey conducted in Shenzhen in November found that 82 percent of people supported setting up a "baby hatch" in this overcrowded city of more than 10 million people, and 67 percent said they believed it would increase a baby’s chances of survival.

Only 15.5 percent were against the idea, although nearly one third said that abandonment centers would encourage parents to give up their children.

Tang Rongsheng, director of the Shenzhen Welfare Center, has argued that establishing "baby safety islands" comes down to a basic question of saving young lives.

“If we deny this with the excuse that we’re providing convenience for abandonment crimes in fact we are sacrificing the lives of babies which is against the law, social morality and our civilization,” he told the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Daily.

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