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March 4, 2007

When in Rome, you can leave your baby on the doorstep — The return of the foundling wheel


A compelling article by Elisabetta Povoledo appeared in the February 28, 2007 New York Times; it follows.

    Updating an Old Way to Leave the Baby on the Doorstep

    In the Middle Ages, new mothers in Rome could abandon their unwanted babies in a "foundling wheel" — a revolving wooden barrel lodged in a wall, often in a convent, that allowed women to deposit their offspring without being seen.

    Now a Rome hospital, the Casilino Polyclinic, has introduced a technologically advanced version of the foundling wheel — not at all a wheel but very much like an A.T.M. booth. [In the photo above, orderlies pass by its door.] For the first time a new mother left her baby there on Saturday night, and on Monday the child, a boy about 3 months old, was doing well, said Dr. Piermichele Paolillo, who directs the neonatal unit at the hospital.

    "We weren't expecting a child this old,"€ Dr. Paolillo said. "On one hand, we're satisfied that the procedure worked perfectly. On the other, we can only guess about his life story."€

    The boy, who was named Stefano by the hospital team after the medic on call that night, was dressed in clean clothes and seemed to have been breast-fed, Dr. Paolillo said, because he at first refused a bottle.

    "It seems he was loved until that moment," he added.

    The baby was deposited in a small structure equipped with a heated cradle and lifesaving instruments, including a respirator.

    As in bygone days, it is possible for a woman to leave a baby without being seen, but the moment the child is abandoned an alarm goes off in the hospital's emergency room, ensuring that the baby receives immediate first aid from a team of specialists.

    "This is the foundling wheel of the third millennium," Dr. Paolillo said. "It's still a simple idea, but now it's part of a neonatal intensive care unit, not a convent."€

    Rome is not alone in the initiative. Modern foundling wheels have made a comeback in various places in Europe in recent decades, particularly in Germany. Switzerland, the Czech Republic and other European countries also have drop-off points for unwanted newborns.

    Several Italian cities have introduced variations. In Bergamo, where a heated cradle was inaugurated in early February in a cloistered convent, an alarm sounds when a baby is placed inside it, alerting the nuns to respond and call the city's emergency number.

    The hospital in Rome is in a neighborhood that is one of the poorest in the city and home to a growing immigrant population. The neighborhood also has the city's highest incidence of child abandonment. In the past two years, 30 deserted children — several found in garbage bins — were entrusted to the hospital's care. Not all of them survived.

    "Young immigrant women are the contemporary counterparts of 19th century servant girls impregnated by their masters,"€ said Grazia Passeri, who directs a project based in Rome that assists women and unwanted children. "They come here alone, they're very fragile, and at very high risk of being seduced and cast off."€

    The discovery of an infant girl on the bed of a truck in July 2005 inspired Dr. Paolillo to create the Casilino cradle, which cost about $52,000. "It was obvious that the mother of that child wanted a better life for her,"€ he said, noting that the baby had been bathed and wrapped in a cloth to keep her warm. "Often, there is an act of love behind abandonment."€

    The problem of unwanted newborns has been documented in Italy since Roman times, when babies abandoned next to a column in a forum were either taken home by a third party to serve as slaves or left to die.

    Foundling wheels were institutionalized by a papal bull issued in the 12th century by Pope Innocent III, who was shocked by the number of dead babies found in the Tiber. By 1204, there was a wheel in operation at the Santo Spirito Hospital in Rome, next to the Vatican. A 14th-century home for abandoned children in Naples, annexed to a church, is now a museum about foundlings. Many common family names in Italy can be traced to a foundling past: Esposito (because children were sometimes "exposed"€ on the steps of a convent), Proietti (from the Latin proicio, to throw away) or Innocenti (as in innocent of their father's sin).

    Foundling wheels spread to various parts of Europe and were used until the late 19th century. They were abolished in Italy under Mussolini in favor of measures that allowed mothers of unwanted children to give birth anonymously.

    Since the cradle was introduced in December at Casilino Polyclinic in Rome, multilingual posters have blossomed in the city, reading: "Don't abandon your baby! Leave it with us."€ The posters also make it clear that all women residing in the country, even foreigners and illegal immigrants, have a right to health care and can give birth in the hospital anonymously.

    "No one will report you to the police or send you away from Italy,"€ the posters read.

    Abandoning a minor by putting the child's life at risk, on the other hand, is a punishable offense.

    "We hope to reach as many women as possible,"€ said Raffaella Milano, the Rome councilwoman for social affairs, which supported the hospital's project. With children being abandoned, she said, the city had a duty to "try all roads"€ to find a solution.

    One challenge, say people who work with immigrant women, is in reaching new migrants to Italy who may not be aware of their rights, which also include a residency permit during pregnancy and for six months after a child is born.

    Dr. Paolillo said half a dozen women who had delivered at the hospital since the inauguration of the cradle had given up their newborns for adoption. He attributes that to "information fallout"€ about their rights. "I think the message has gotten out," he said.



Above, orderly Stefano Lorenzi shows how to place an infant through the hatch into a heated crib.

I wonder if the the practice described in the article above could exist in the U.S.

It seems to me to be one that both the far right and the far left — not to mention those in between — could support.

March 4, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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do you have to be catholic to adopt

Posted by: | Mar 15, 2007 10:09:41 PM

I took care of a "Baby Moses" once. I think it's very loving of mothers to give their baby a chance for a better life.

Posted by: Sherri | Mar 5, 2007 1:26:15 PM

I have heard that these sort of facilities are available in the US as well. Unless things have changed, 47 states (Nebraska, Alaska and Hawaii are the missing 3) have safe haven laws where parents will not be prosecuted if they leave their babies in designated locations such as hospitals.

Posted by: Katie | Mar 5, 2007 9:28:08 AM

I warmly suggest this to anyone trying to get out of child support payments.

I've used it twice so far.

Posted by: clifyt | Mar 4, 2007 7:08:07 PM

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