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Russia's 'Baby Box' Initiative Under Fire

  • Tom Balmforth

An employee with the Cradle of Life project in St. Petersburg demonstrates how a baby box works. These hatches installed at hospitals enable mothers to legally and anonymously abandon their unwanted babies.

MOSCOW -- Yelena Kotova grows emotional as she talks about the conservative campaign to ban the use of "baby boxes" -- hatches installed at hospitals through which mothers can legally and anonymously abandon their unwanted babies.

Kotova, the director of Cradle of Life, a charity in the Urals town of Perm championing their use, believes ending Russia's baby-box project would lead to a rise in infants being deserted in the street -- or even killed out of desperation.

Baby boxes are legal in Russia, and polls show a clear majority of Russians support their use. Last year, there appeared to be openness among lawmakers to improve on the 5-year-old initiative, which features 20 drop-off locations across the country, when legislation was proposed that strengthen regulations.

But a rival legislative bill drafted since and a number of statements from lawmakers and government officials point to a growing movement to shut the door on baby boxes.

'Terrorist Threat'

Kotova claims that her organization has come under considerable pressure -- one of several signs that baby boxes have an unclear future in a country where socially conservative, "traditional" values are increasingly extolled over what some Russian officials say are decadent Western policies.

"For the last 24 months, we've lived under constant checks -- from the prosecutor, the prosecutor-general, the Justice Ministry, from all sides," Kotova told RFE/RL. "Even our friends who like the project [baby boxes] are tiring of this barrage of negativity. It's as if we have no other problems in the country!"

In June, crusading conservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina introduced a bill to the State Duma proposing a full ban on baby boxes, claiming the devices actively encouraged mothers to abandon their children. She also argued that infants could be abducted from parents and placed in the box by third parties. Mizulina's ban proposed fining entities that use baby boxes up to 5 million rubles ($80,000), or suspending their activities for 90 days.

On October 10, the government contended that Mizulina's bill was too severe, and needed "considerable revision," but recent statements from the government have painted baby boxes in a bad light.

Conservative Russian lawmaker Yelena Mizulina (file photo)

Conservative Russian lawmaker Yelena Mizulina (file photo)

On November 29, Oleg Filippov, deputy director for the Health Ministry's department for medical health for children and obstetrics, attacked the baby box as a potential terrorist threat. Filippov said the boxes are not officially licensed and therefore do not have "certified security." He also said that the "provision of anonymity, the impossibility of monitoring the situation, raises the risk of terrorist problems."

On December 1, Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova criticized the baby-box project on two scores: that babies are left in "total darkness," and that personnel tasked with retrieving the babies do not react quickly. Kotova dismisses both of these allegations, saying the hatches are lit and that staff typically react within 1.5 minutes.

Foundling Wheels

The use of baby boxes dates back to the Middle Ages, when they were known as foundling wheels. These were phased out in the 19th century before a more modern version was introduced in the mid-20th century.

The devices are used widely in several European countries, and others around the world. But they have also stirred controversy.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Children has recommended that baby-box programs be ended as soon as possible, and that countries take steps to promote alternatives.

In comments to RFE/RL, a spokesperson said the committee's experts "recommend addressing the root causes that lead to the abandonment of infants, including [the lack of] family planning as well as adequate counseling and social support for unplanned pregnancies."

To their advocates in Russia, baby boxes are an imperfect answer to tragic statistics. In 2015, 98 infants were killed by their parents and more than 4,000 abandoned. Infanticide dropped steadily in the late 1990s, as living standards rose with booming oil prices under President Vladimir Putin.

Since the baby boxes were first installed in 2011, there have been 60 cases in which they have been used, according to Cradle of Life. To Kotova, this means 60 saved lives in the 16 regions where they are located.

In nine of these cases, Kotova said, mothers had actually changed their minds and taken their children back, in line with an established six-month procedure. The other babies have been adopted.

There is just one baby box in Kotova's hometown, Perm, and it has received five infants since it was established late 2011. The device was closed down for a year from June 2015 to September 2016 because of what Kotova described as state pressure in the form of checks.

Writing weeks after the baby box was closed down, the local branch of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper noted that the public called for the device to be reinstated after the discovery of a newborn baby girl discarded in the trash.

Diversion Tactic?

Polling data shows that the devices have broad public support. Last month, state pollster VTsIOM said 73 percent of respondents in Russia are aware of baby boxes and that 75 percent support their use.

Commenting on the data, Yelena Mikhaylova, director of special programs at VTsIOM said: "Russians recognize that the closure of baby boxes today could lead to the worsening of the situation in the sphere of child death, the rise of social orphaning."

An online petition opposing Mizulina's legislation has garnered more than 280,000 signatures.

The lack of overt support for the ban has spurred commentators to speculate on the real motives for pushing for it in the first place.

In one example, an opinion piece for news portal Znak.Ru suggested in October that authorities might be deliberately seeking to unleash a public outcry over a soft social issue in order to divert attention from a harder political issue that was potentially damaging to the Kremlin.

The author, journalist Ruslan Ismailov, noted that Mizulina had made her initial declaration that the government had backed her proposed ban (even though it had not) on September 28. He noted that this was the same date set for the presentation of the international criminal investigation into the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine.

Attention was distracted, he argued, by her controversial declaration: "The Internet explodes: how can this be, now kids will end up on trash heaps!"

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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