Why Guangzhou Closing Its Baby Hatch Changes Nothing

Within hours of my article “Postponing of Baby Hatch Disgraces Shenzhen” being published, news broke that Guangzhou was temporarily closing its baby hatch (“baby hatch” is the unfortunate term used to describe small buildings where parents can safely abandon their children). According to authorities, the Guangzhou baby hatch had received so many children, the Social Welfare Institute could not care for them; so the hatch was closed. Any parents who leave their children there now would face prosecution.

All afternoon I got messages from people asking if I had seen the Guangzhou news and if it changed my position on the matter. Short answer, no, it does not. The baby hatches are desperately needed. But feel free to keep reading for my excruciatingly long answer.

Let me give a little bit of a history about this problem. In China, over 10,000 children are abandoned every year. This is happening with or without any safeties put in place to protect the children. The baby hatches started popping up around China last year in an effort to protect these children. In some places, like Shenzhen, people protested and tried to prevent the hatches from being opened. People claimed that baby hatches would encourage abandonment. They completely ignore the fact that abandonment was already happening. In China, people deal with problems by not dealing with problems. By sticking their head in the sand and pretending that people aren’t abandoning their children, these protesters preferred to live in a world of blissful ignorance. However, that world is one where children were left on the street or in public toilets to die. Supporters of the baby hatches did not give up, though, and 25 baby hatches have been opened across the country in the last two years with plans for dozens more to be opened within the next two years.

With growing support for the baby hatch, and with hundreds rescued in Guangzhou alone, it was quite a shock to learn yesterday that the Guangzhou baby hatch was suspending operations. It is hugely upsetting. There should be more hatches opening, not hatches closing. The overwhelming numbers of abandoned children at the Guangzhou hatch just goes to show that this is an urgent need. Closing the hatch isn’t going to stop babies from being abandoned.

This isn’t about baby hatches at all. This is about China’s shoddy healthcare system and the one-child policy.

In the past, most abandoned children in China were girls (which is still happening, but that is a post for another day), but according to Guangzhou authorities, 100% of the children abandoned at the baby hatch from the opening on Jan. 28th to its closing on March 17th were sick. 42% of the babies had cerebral palsy, 15% had Down syndrome, and 12% had congenital heart problems. Chinese parents are simply not equipped to raise sick children. Even though China claims to have a communist and comprehensive healthcare system, it does not. The Chinese government does not provide support to anyone with a catastrophic illness. This includes children. In spite of China’s growing numbers of millionaires and a growing middle-class, the average family annual income (family, not individual) in China is only $2,100. Try to imagine your family living on $2,100 a year; now imagine living on $2,100 and having a child with cancer or a severe heart defect. The tragic fact is that many parents cannot afford to keep their sick children with them. They also emotionally cannot handle them. The psychology sector is still in its infancy in China, and meeting the emotional needs of these families is simply not on the radar of most health institutions.

Of course, the one-child policy also plays a role here. Health problems like Down syndrome and cerebral palsy are not usually life threatening. In fact, many children with these problems can lead full, long lives. It is true, though, that many face insurmountable odds and will never be “normal.” Many of these children will not be able to marry, have their own children, or have successful careers. Families are not going to spend time, money, and other resources on a “useless” child. The sooner a sick child is out of the family, the sooner they can work on having a healthy child.

I know it sounds cruel. It would be so easy to blame parents who abandon their children and criminalize them. But parents who abandon their children in China are also victims. They are victims of a heartless bureaucracy that values money over human beings. In America or England or any other developed nation, the idea of abandoning a child because it is sick, or even dying, seems unimaginable. Many parents will spend every cent they don’t have just to spend one more day with their precious baby. But China is not a developed country. For all its shopping malls, western hospitals, and skyscrapers, it is still a developing nation where people eek by the best way they know how. It is easy to vilify these parents, but they truly have no choice.

This is why the baby hatches must stay open. Until China completely overhauls its healthcare system, creating one that gives families financial and emotional support, and the one-child policy is ended, babies will continue to be abandoned. Better they be abandoned in a safe baby hatch than a trashcan.