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Sunday, May 27, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Baby hatch gives rise to empty moralizing


Every year the national Parent-Teacher Association conducts a survey to find out which television shows people either want or don't want their children to watch. Two programs always make it to the top of the disapproval list: "London Hearts," a variety show hosted by the coarse comedy duo London Boots, and "Crayon Shinchan," a cartoon about the world's most salacious preschooler.

This year there was a surprise. Wedged between these two perennial nonfavorites was the autumn 2006 Nihon TV drama series "14-sai no Haha (14-Year-Old Mother)," about a pregnant teenage girl. You might assume that parents would find it objectionable on the grounds that it romanticized premarital sex, but that wasn't the reason given by most respondents, according to the Asahi Shimbun. What made them uncomfortable was the drama's position, which said that a pregnant girl, even one who is 14 years old, should by all means bear and raise her baby.

This position appears to be a moral one. However, the parents who answered the survey seemed to look upon the matter in a more practical light. Was such a young girl emotionally equipped to handle motherhood? The show's tone was sentimental, the plot rigged to evoke approval for the young girl's decision. Also rigged was her boyfriend's relationship with his single mother, who was too busy with her career to pay attention to his problems.

The moral high ground is usually occupied by people who are insulated from real life, which is why the controversy over the so-called "baby hatch" at a hospital in Kumamoto Prefecture has been less than helpful in coming to terms with the rash of recent news stories about abandoned, abused and murdered children. Jikei Hospital installed the hatch so that parents who felt unable to care for their newborns could leave them anonymously with the hospital, which would then take responsibility for them. Critics of the hatch, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, framed their objections in moral terms, saying that society shouldn't tolerate the idea of a parent abandoning a child under any circumstances and that the hatch would only encourage such actions.

The moral argument loses clarity when you consider Jikei's reasons. The hospital is affiliated with the Catholic Church, so it does not perform abortions. In an editorial, the Yomiuri Shimbun said that because Jikei cannot terminate pregnancies, it must offer a solution to expectant mothers who do not think they can raise children, since there is the possibility that a mother will "panic" and do something desperate, like kill the child. The baby hatch provides an alternative. The purpose is to save the child.

Moralists started saying "I told you so" only hours after the hatch opened for business, when a 3-year-old boy was left there, apparently by the toddler's father, who had brought him by train from Fukuoka. The father's actions appeared to be born of convenience rather than desperation. Cabinet minister Sanae Takaichi, one of whose briefs is the nation's dwindling birth-rate, responded to the news by saying, "Having and rearing a child is a parent's responsibility, and we cannot accept that a parent underestimates that responsibility."

Ignoring the notion that you can't be a parent until after you have a child and the fact that Takaichi herself has none, the automatic nature of her comment is symptomatic of the government's unwillingness to do anything but promote the idea of procreation as a civic imperative. "Why can't they ever say anything more than that?" groused Ichiro Furutachi, the anchorman on TV Asahi's "Hodo Station," following a clip of Takaichi's statement.

If one looks closely at the most egregious abandonment cases, lack of morality seems less of a problem than lack of sense. One child welfare officer told the Asahi that what these incidents demonstrate is the "immaturity" of today's young parents. As appalling as some of these stories are, the more immediate response is incredulity. Did the father believe the 3-year-old he placed in the hatch would not be traced back to him, given that the boy is old enough to say his name and where he's from?

The tragedy of the infant who was found dead in a gutter in Osaka Prefecture last month is a better example of the problem. After the police arrested the baby's 21-year-old mother and her husband of the same age (who is not the baby's father), the couple gave a bizarre story about placing the baby in the compartment of their motorcycle while they played pachinko. The baby suffocated. An autopsy found that the boy probably died in April, though the couple said it was January, the same month the mother allegedly called a local child care center to ask if it had a baby hatch.

Conscience aside, this couple is obviously not mature enough to raise a goldfish, much less a human. Fussing over deteriorating moral values means nothing when you essentially have children giving birth to children. Practical sex education might help stem the increasing incidence of marriages that result from unexpected pregnancies, but the present administration is against sex education in schools. They prefer teaching morality (read: chastity). Jikei Hospital's scheme may not be perfect, but at least it acknowledges reality.

Morality and sentimentality go hand-in-hand. When the Asahi reported on the baby in the motorcycle compartment, the editors positioned the story right next to one about a baby sparrow that had fallen out of its nest. A policeman placed the chick in a cage outdoors, and the (presumed) mother sparrow found it and fed it through the bars of the cage. The story's "awww" factor is undeniable, but when you compare it to the story in the adjacent column the didacticism is almost deafening. Even sparrows understand their moral responsibilities.



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