For centuries, desperately poor mothers came to the Annunziata church to push their newborns into a dark slot within a wooden turntable in a convent wall. A few turns, they hoped, and their child would have a better life.
From medieval times or earlier, women across Europe resorted to systems like “the wheel” to abandon infants they were too poor or ashamed to keep.
Such arrangements were abolished more than a century ago as uncivilized. But increasingly frequent news reports about babies tossed in trash bins or into toilet bowls are prompting modern versions of the “wheel” to make a comeback on the continent.
The systems have names like “babyklappe” (baby slot) in Austria and Germany; “babyfenster” (baby window) in Switzerland; “babybox” in the Czech Republic; “culle per vite” (cradles for life) in Italy.
Support from doctors, social workers
Many are sophisticated incubator-like containers that heat up when a baby is placed inside. In some cases an alarm sounds after a few minutes, giving the mother a chance to say goodbye before attendants come to fetch the baby.
Baby slots are increasingly being advocated or considered by doctors and social workers who say Europe’s anti-abandonment strategies are inadequate. Some of them point to the rising number of illegal immigrant women, whose clandestine status may put them under pressure to abandon unwanted babies.
“It’s hard to persuade them to go to the gynecologist, let alone a hospital,” said Enrico Serpieri, an official in Rome’s municipal office that deals with social problems. “These women can’t distinguish between authorities like the police and a hospital.”
Several European countries offer guarantees that women can give birth anonymously in hospitals and leave the baby behind. In July, Italy’s equal opportunity minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, launched a campaign to raise awareness about a 1975 law that also guarantees women here illegally won’t be deported if they decide on such an anonymous birth.
Italy shocked by two cases
Trying to broaden the campaign, Italian female deputies in the European Parliament in September proposed “Operation Live” to push for toll-free telephone numbers across Europe to help women learn their options and for a system to monitor child abandonment.
A week before the “Operation Live” initiative was unveiled in Strasbourg, Italians were shocked by back-to-back cases of newborns found dead in trash bins.
In one case, an 18-year-old Chinese woman was arrested in the northern town of Forli on a charge of homicide. The case was discovered because the mother sought treatment for hemorrhaging.
Two days after that arrest came reports a 23-year-old Ukrainian illegally working in a bar near Naples also left her baby in a trash can to die. She and four other clandestine immigrants, who were believed to have helped her discard her infant, were arrested.
Scandal 'in a civilized land'
This summer, the grisly discovery in eastern Germany of nine newborns whose remains were stuffed into flower pots and a fish tank in a garden fueled calls in that country for more places where mothers could secretly drop off unwanted babies.
“It is a scandal that in a civilized land mothers must bring their children into the world in train station toilets and bathtubs because they are too afraid to go to a hospital,” said Dr. Juergen Moysich, chairman of SterniPaark, a group that organized the “baby slot” program in Hamburg, Germany.
Hamburg started its program in 2000 after a newborn was found dead in a garbage container. The first “babyklappe” was put at a day care center near the train station in a poor neighborhood. So far, 22 babies have been left at Hamburg’s two “slots,” with seven of those infants later reclaimed by their birth mothers. Three babies were handed over directly by mothers who called SterniPaark’s hot line, the group said.
In the more than five years since the introduction of baby slots in Hamburg, only four infants — three of them dead — have been found abandoned in the city. That is fewer than were found in 1999 alone, when five discarded newborns were found.
In all, Germany now has 78 “babyklappe” facilities, and about a dozen more are planned in various cities.
Babies abandoned in Hungary, Austria
In Hungary, 34 infants have been left in a dozen incubators around the country, generally near hospital entrances, since 1996. In Austria, 12 infants have been slid into a “babyklappe” in the last five years.
Baby-slots would help “a woman who is desperate but who wants to save her child and doesn’t have the courage ... to go to a hospital,” said Enrico Guida, health director of Annunziata’s maternity and pediatric hospital.
Guida said that after this summer’s cases of abandonment in Italy he began sounding out colleagues about putting a baby-slot either at the hospital or somewhere else in Naples, which has some of Italy’s poorest neighborhoods.
Apparently no central office keeps track of the total number of women who resort to the Italian law on anonymous births, but a small sampling indicates there are few. Of the 1,300 babies born last year at Annunziata, six were anonymous. In Rome, where 25,943 babies were born in 2004, the number was 26.
An anti-abortion group, Movement for Life, has placed a half-dozen “cradles for life” near convents in Italy over the past decades, but says no babies have ever been left in them. Nobody knows how many newborns are discarded each year because the crime can easily go undetected.