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Editorial: Protecting infants' lives 10 years after launch of 'baby hatch'

Ten years have passed since the opening of a controversial "baby hatch" set up at Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto Prefecture -- the only facility in Japan where parents can anonymously leave children they are unable to raise. Its aim is to protect the unwanted children born through unforeseen pregnancies sometimes involving poverty or violence.

    By the end of March last year, a total of 125 babies had been deposited in the hatch. The hospital has cooperated with child consultation centers to investigate who the children's parents are, and has made efforts to open the way to special adoptions so that the children can be brought up with kindness.

    The baby hatch, named "konotori no yurikago" (stork's cradle), drew criticism when it was first set up. Critics argued that it was allowing people to easily abandon their responsibility to raise their children. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also took a negative view of the facility, saying at the time, "I feel strong resistance toward creating a place where people can anonymously leave children."

    However, amid poverty among Japan's youth, the breakdown of families and other reasons, the number of unwanted pregnancies has been increasing, and there have been quite a few births among elementary and junior high school students. Jikei Hospital receives over 5,000 inquiries about pregnancy and birth each year. The need for such a hatch has come to be felt.

    According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, a total of 626 children under the age of 18 died as a result of abuse in cases other than those classed as murder-suicides between fiscal 2003 and 2014. Of these, nearly half were less than a year old, and in the majority of cases the mother was the perpetrator.

    Compared with other countries, Japan has been slow to respond to unwanted births, partly due to the high number of abortions. Germany and a number of other countries have for a long time operated systems similar to that of Japan's baby hatch system, saving many lives.

    Recently, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has stationed child welfare workers in medical institutions with obstetrics departments, as well as at nonprofit organizations supporting the poor and sufferers of domestic violence, to support women with unwanted pregnancies.

    A revision to the Child Welfare Act that came into force in April this year boosts support for foster parents and special adoptions. It also tightens regulation of private groups that arrange adoptions, with an effort to improve their quality by eliminating groups that operate for money.

    Still, there are probably cases that fall through the system. While accepting the weight of the lives the baby hatch has accepted, a wider system of support should be created. No matter what the circumstances are, newborn lives must be protected.

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