Cradled by tradition

Newborns saved by age-old policy

Editorial Staff
December 14, 2006

The medieval ‘foundling wheel,’ a device allowing women to abandon newborn babies anony-mously, is making a come-back at hospitals and religious institutions around Italy. Until the 19th century, it was common for a desperate mother to lay an unwanted child on horizontal wooden wheels which were half inside convents and half outside. A nun on the inside would turn the wheel, bringing the baby inside to be cared for, while the mother could slip away without being seen.

Prompted by public concern over the number of babies abandoned soon after birth, at least eight modern versions of the wheel have been set up recently in cities up and down the penin-sula.The latest was inaugurated on Thursday at a hospital in a poor district of Rome, where there is a high concentration of immigrants and Rom gypsies. Seventeen babies were aban-doned at birth in the hospital last year. By law any woman has the right to give birth anonymously in all Italian hospitals, but Rome health officials said not all women are aware of this.

Italian dailies frequently report cases of newborn babies being found in roadside rubbish bins, and an apparent rise in the number of these cases was one of the reasons some hospitals de-cided to offer a more humane alternative. Most of the women who leave babies in bins these days are believed to be immigrants, many of them in the country illegally and therefore scared to go to a hospital for fear of being turned over to police.

The system set up at the Policlino Casilino in Rome is a far cry from the wheels used in the past. It consists of a small heated hut just outside the hospital in which there is a cradle. Light sensors installed on the inside alert hospital staff to the arrival of a baby. Modern versions of the baby wheel have been successfully introduced in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

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