The Italian Almanac

an ancient (now closed) foundling wheel

Italian News - December 9

The medieval 'foundling wheel', a device allowing young women to abandon newborn babies anonymously, 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 the horizontal wooden wheels which were half inside convents and half outside. A nun on the inside would turn the wheel, bringing the baby inside where it could be cared for while the mother could slip away without being seen unnoticed.

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 peninsula. The latest was inaugurated on Thursday at a hospital in a poor district of Rome where there is a high concentration of immigrants and Roma gypsies. Seventeen babies were abandoned 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 decided to offer a more human alternative.

Most of the women who leave babies in dustbins 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. "We wanted to give mothers in difficulty a further possibility, because sometimes abandoning a child in an act of generosity," said Raffaela Milano, Rome councillor for social affairs.

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 little 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.