Sometimes it is fear of the child’s violent father, sometimes fear of their own family, sometimes it is due to economic or psychological dependency: Some pregnant women are in such great distress that they hide their pregnancy even from those closest to them.

But where should the child be born? And what happens to the little one afterwards? For ten years, women in particularly difficult life situations in Germany have had the opportunity to have a confidential birth.

It was introduced on May 1, 2014 to prevent infanticide and abandonment and to create a legal alternative to baby hatches and anonymous births. At the same time, the child at least gets the chance to know their own origins, which experts believe is particularly important for personality development.

“Pregnant women in need” helpline

The first point of contact is the “Pregnant Women in Need” helpline, which can be reached around the clock in 19 languages ​​on 0800 40 40 020. There the expectant mother is referred to a pregnancy counseling center. Their employee is the only person who learns the true identity of those affected, who otherwise receives a pseudonym.

The counselor notes the mother’s personal details on a certificate of origin, which is stored centrally in a sealed envelope. The envelope is stamped with the date and place of birth, the mother’s pseudonym and the child’s name. The child, in turn, comes into care immediately after birth and is put up for adoption after about a year, unless the mother revokes her anonymity. At the age of 16, he has the right to know his mother’s personal data – unless she actively objects for important reasons. In case of doubt, a family court will decide.

Ten children per month

According to the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, 1,166 women gave birth to a child confidentially by February 2024, a relatively constant number of around ten per month. The ministry does not have data from the individual federal states, but the number of cases there each year is very low – a major challenge for the entire system, from the emergency services to the registry office. For example, in Bavaria, the largest federal state in terms of area with the second largest population, only 17 confidential births were registered in 2022, according to the family ministry there.

“The reasons for a confidential birth are very different and very individual,” sums up Evi Kerkak, specialist representative at Donum Vitae in Bavaria. The association, which specializes in pregnant women in conflict situations, was a nationwide pioneer with its “Moses Project”, under which women in the Free State have been able to give birth completely anonymously since 1999, which ultimately paved the way for confidential births.

Fear and shame

“Experience shows that the issue of fear is huge,” says Kerkak. There is, for example, the young woman who fears that if the pregnancy becomes known she will be forced into marriage in her parents’ home country. Or the expectant mother who is threatened by the child’s father, who is otherwise married, with murdering the child if she does not abort it. Others affected fear losing their economic existence or destroying the family structure.

“Shame is a second reason,” Kerkak lists. For example, for mothers who already receive support from the youth welfare office and are now unplanned to become pregnant again. Or who were raped. A third reason is mental illness. The thought of those affected: “I can’t even take care of myself, how am I supposed to take care of a child?”

A regular adoption procedure is often not an option because it is outlawed in large parts of society and various bodies – from health insurance companies to notaries – find out about the birth. “The desire for anonymity is often not for the child, but for the environment,” emphasizes Yvonne Fritz from the Catholic Women’s Social Service.

“Best possible compromise”

The practical experts therefore unanimously support the concept of confidential birth as the “best possible compromise”, even if it can hardly avoid infanticide or abandonment, which is usually committed emotionally. But there are also points of criticism: For example, women who do not have valid identification documents or are staying in Germany illegally are only left with anonymous birth, which is still in a legal gray area. It is also neither regulated nor financed how pregnant women can be accommodated outside their environment to protect themselves before the birth.

Mothers could also be deterred from accepting their child because the costs of the birth would then be incurred – but not everyone affected has health insurance. “And many sides are demanding that there be a clear time window after which the child is put up for adoption,” Kerkak lists.

After ten years of confidential births, one more thing is important to the specialists: more recognition for the mothers who place their child in good hands. Then many more women would choose an official adoption with all its benefits for mother and child instead of a confidential or even completely anonymous birth.

“Almost all of the women in counseling say that the most important thing to me is that the child is doing well, but at the same time they think they are incredibly bad mothers,” says Heike Pinne from the pro familia counseling center association. “They ensure that their child goes to a good place. They deserve the utmost respect and not stigmatization.”