Budapest, 4 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Turn on the television in Hungary, or open a newspaper, and several times a month you will hear of a newborn baby being abandoned in a public toilet, or tossed in a garbage can. The lucky ones are found before they cool off and die from exposure. But if two or three hours go by, the baby dies.
Driven by despair, every year 20 to 30 Hungarian women kill their newborn babies, often by smothering them in a plastic bag and leaving then in a garbage can. In one particularly gruesome case last fall, the destitute mother burned her newborn baby to death in the courtyard of her home.
Horrified by these well-publicized cases, two Hungarian doctors have come up with an innovative approach that is saving babies' lives, comforting expectant mothers and shortening the wait for childless couples eager to adopt the unwanted newborns.
Working together, Andrea Szolnoki, a physician who is Budapest's deputy mayor in charge of health, and Gyorgy Garamvoelgyi, director of the Schoepf-Merei mother-and-child hospital, started a program just over a year ago to encourage women who were not pleased to be pregnant to either keep their babies or give them up for adoption.
With an eye on publicity as well as practicalities, the doctors placed a heated incubator on the sidewalk outside the hospital doors to encourage mothers to place their unwanted babies there. The incubator got world-wide publicity, even though it was only used for the first time at the end of March.
But what Dr. Garamvoelgyi feels is even more important, it established the hospital as a place unwilling mothers-to-be from all over the country felt they could turn to for help. Now the doctors and nurses and the hospital work with the pregnant women to reconcile them with their families and find practical and psychological help before giving birth in the hospital.
In the first 11 months of operation, the program has welcomed nearly 190 pregnant women into the hospital, 143 of whom have given birth. (The rest are still pregnant.) The biggest proportion of the babies, 40 percent, went home with their mothers, a solution Dr. Garamvoelgyi finds ideal.
Another 36 percent were given up by their mothers and were adopted within two or three weeks of birth by carefully-screened couples, many of whom had waited years to adopt. The doctors regard this as another good solution.
The worst outcome, the doctors say, was for the remainder whose mothers did not chose to take them home, but could not bring themselves to give them up for adoption. These babies will be brought up in state childrens' homes unless the mothers relinquish their rights.
Dr. Garamvoelgyi, a cheerful man bursting with enthusiasm for his program, admits he had qualms when it first started. As he put it, he wondered how the other doctors and nurses would react when he invited all the country's "potential baby-killers" to take refuge at their hospital.
But he says his colleagues have opened their hearts to women in trouble, two or three of whom come to the hospital every week from all over Hungary.
"We believe that human beings are good creatures. They are not evil. A woman only in the worst extreme, in a grave psychological state, decides to kill her offspring, which is sheer barbarism. We can help her before she takes this last step," he said.
Dr. Emoeke Seress Toth, a pediatrician who says she has put 20 years of her life into saving babies, supervises the wards for the newborns and their mothers. Quite often, she says, "we have the feeling that if this program didn't exist, then some of the mothers would have killed their babies."
Hungary's infanticide epidemic is closely connected with economic problems and feelings of social insecurity, says Zsuzsa Ferge, a sociologist and Hungary's leading expert on poverty.
Statistics prove her point. The number of infanticides recorded by Hungarian police reached a peak of 39 in 1983, dropped to 11 in the crucial transition year of 1989, and rose again to 20 last year.
Psychologist Judit Cseres of the Hungarian National Police, who has made an extensive study of the phenomenon, says there is a direct correlation between infanticide and economic hopelessness.
She told an American newspaper last fall: "If you chart the cases on a curve, you will see it is like a thermometer of Hungarian society. The optimism of 1988 and 1989 is gone, the time of change when everyone was planning a bright future and wanting to have children."
While infanticide is well known in India and China, in Europe it seems to be a particularly Hungarian phenomenon. The Czech Republic, which has an almost identical size population and is going through the same economic transformation, reports only five infanticides in 1995, and only one last year.
And unlike infanticide in China and India, where the victims are overwhelmingly unwanted baby girls, sex plays no role in Hungarian infanticides. Some mothers interviewed by Hungarian police said they didn't even check the sex of the child before killing it.
Hungarian police say there was a dip in baby-killings right after Schoepf-Merei hospital placed its famous incubator outside the door, but that infanticide is rising again as the publicity wears off.
Still, Dr. Szolnoki says the program has been a great success.
"It helps the babies, mothers and childless couples," she says.
And she concludes: "Today there is no reason for any woman in Hungary who wants to get rid of her baby to kill it."