CNS PHOTO | JONATHAN LUXMOORE
A nun is seen in the window of a baby hatch (called angel cradles in North America) inside the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto residence in Warsaw, Poland.
On a damp street in Warsaw, not far from St. Florian's Cathedral, a tiny mattress lies on display behind a safety-glass window, installed at waist height on a dull grey wall.
To the left, a door sign reads "Sisters of Our Lady of Loretto." Across the teeming thoroughfare a multistory hospital gazes down over rutted sidewalks.
When the Polish capital's first "life window" (known as angel cradles in North America) was dedicated in 2006, it was one of dozens newly installed around Europe, as a safe place for unwilling mothers to leave their babies.
Today, controversy is growing, as an influential UN committee charges that the windows violate children's rights.
"We're not encouraging mothers to get rid of their children," Agnieszka Homan, spokeswoman for the Polish Church's Caritas charity, said in an interview.
"Although newborns can be left legally in state hospitals, some are still being dumped outside in the cold. These life windows offer a facility where women who don't want to give birth in (a) hospital can leave them anonymously, without endangering their lives."
Historians believe Europe's first baby hatch, life window or foundling wheel, was opened in Rome under Pope Innocent III in 1198. Most hatches were closed in the 19th century, as state social care expanded.
However, they began to reopen at the end of the 20th century, as more babies were abandoned amid economic hardship and social breakdown.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz
Most now consist of heated incubators with simple sign-directions, which trigger a bell or buzzer when a baby is deposited inside.
Newborns, usually left at night, are taken to a hospital and kept nearby for several weeks in case the parents reclaim them.
In Krakow, Poland, the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth opened a life window in 2006. When a baby was left there last fall, a card was found: "Casper, I'm sorry. I love you very much – Mum."
"We were woken by the alarm at night and ran down, and we saw a beautiful boy lying in the window," Sister Jozefina told the Catholic Gosc Niedzielny weekly.
"The card really touched us, since we sensed the mother must have really struggled. . . . We wonder what made her give up her own child, and we're supporting such women with our prayers."
When another boy was left in Krakow Dec. 31, a note was found: "My heart is breaking, but I have to do this – please find him good parents."
"At first, I thought it was a bag with clothes – but I waited a moment, since I sensed there was someone on the other side of the wall," one of the nuns told TVN, a Polish commercial television network.
"The child was cheerful and looked healthy. So we wrapped him up and he slept in my arms till the ambulance came."
While abandoning children is illegal in many countries, 11 of the European Union's 27 member-states now allow hatches, which are estimated to have received around 500 babies continent-wide in a decade. Germany has about 80 baby hatches, and Austria has 15.
In Switzerland, 87 per cent of citizens said they were "very useful or useful" in a 2011 survey, while more than a quarter thought every hospital should have one.
That helps explain the strong reactions when the UN's Geneva-based Committee on the Rights of the Child called in 2012 for Europe's baby hatches to be closed.
In a radio interview last June, a Hungarian committee member, Maria Herczog, denounced the "mediaeval" hatches as a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
She said the hatches contradicted Articles 7 and 8 of the convention, which enshrine a child's rights to "to know and be cared for by his or her parents" and "to preserve his or her identity."
The hatches, she said, encourage women to abandon their babies after giving birth in "insecure situations."
One prominent Polish social commentator, Magdalena Sroda, recently branded the life windows a "Dickensian relic."
"Perhaps their closure would force the government to do something about providing sex education, recognizing women's reproductive rights and establishing the rights of children – not just to life, but to a worthy existence," Sroda told the mass-circulation Gazeta Wyborcza daily in December.
Some Polish experts believe babies have been left by pimps or male relatives without the mother's consent. They say most have also been well-fed and clothed, putting in doubt claims they'd otherwise be dumped on rubbish heaps.
"Adopted children will one day want to know about their roots, but this is impossible with the life windows," Monika Redziak, director of Poland's Catholic Care and Upbringing Centre, told the Catholic information agency, KAI.
"In this case, nothing can be known about the mother or family, the course of the pregnancy or the child's potential health problems," she said.
Homan, the Caritas spokeswoman, thinks the objections are all a misunderstanding.
While the UN Convention's Articles 7 and 8 establish a child's right to know its origins, she points out, Article 6 enshrines its "inherent right to life," and this has to take priority.
On Jan. 10, Krakow's city council adopted a resolution urging the Polish government to ensure they stay open.
Supporters say the life windows are saving newborns, and representatives of the Church in Poland say they're counting on the Vatican, which is represented at the UN, to resist attempts to close the hatches.
"A child thrown on a rubbish tip cannot fail to shock our consciences – these life windows are the Church's answer to this tragedy," Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow told Gosc Niedzielny.
"It's a concrete act of mercy, a summons to responsible motherhood and fatherhood, a moving testimony that we can never be indifferent to the drama of mother and child," Dziwisz said.