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Report: Modern adaptation of ancient cradle welcomes unwanted babies in Italy

March 15, 2007

From Catholic News Service

The story of a baby boy, who was abandoned by his mother at a hospital in Rome, has focused attention on a modern adaptation of an old instrument called the foundling wheel.

His mother had placed Stefano, who was named after the doctor who found him, in a special crib near the hospital entrance designed specifically for abandoned babies. Stefano received immediate medical attention from hospital staff, unlike other babies who are left in a garbage bin to die.

In mid-March, it was announced that an adoptive family also had been found for Stefano.

High-tech cradles like the one Stefano was left in have been touted as a way to save unwanted babies.

Known as “cradles for life” or the “baby box,” they have been installed in hospitals in various major cities in Germany, Belgium and other European countries. India was also planning to install the cradles.

They are fitted with heated mattresses, a ventilation system and electronic sensors linked to an alarm and have been called the modern-day version of the foundling wheel.

In the late 12th century, shocked by how many abandoned babies were found dead in the Tiber River, Pope Innocent III instituted the foundling wheel. The device, a revolving wooden cylinder in which a baby could be placed, was installed in churches and convents.

A mother who wanted to abandon her baby, because of economic reasons or because her child was illegitimate, could place her baby in the wheel, turn it and walk away. Once the mother turned the wheel, a bell would ring alerting those inside the building to the new arrival.

The foundling wheel was used in other parts of Europe well into the 19th century.

The cradle in which Stefano was left was installed in Rome’s Casilino Policlinic hospital last December. It is the first of its kind in an Italian hospital, but already there is talk about placing them in other public health facilities.

Church organizations have long supported the cradles, though they have functioned in recent years on a symbolic level.

Over the last 14 years, Movimento per la Vita, Italy’s national pro-life organization, has installed 10 of the cribs in convents and in their own Centers for Life throughout Italy. In February, the movement set up the most recent cradle in the gate of a Dominican monastery in the northern Italian city of Bergamo.

Although Giorgio Gibertini of the movement told Catholic News Service that a baby hasn’t been left in one of their cradles, they have served a promotional purpose and have become monuments to life.

He said he considers the real cradles to be the organization’s 278 centers where pregnant women or new mothers in crisis can go for help.

In 1994 the organization started a program through which anonymous donors adopt expectant mothers. The mother, who undergoes a careful screening process, receives about $210 a month for 18 months. Although it is not a large amount of money, it reminds the mother that she is not alone and it gives her a small economic base, Gibertini said.

“We have helped 77,000 babies be born by providing the mother with the help she needed. All 77,000 babies stayed with their mother,” he said.

Among the women who have turned to the organization’s centers for help, the No. 1 reason cited for considering abortion or abandonment was solitude, and economic reasons were the second reason most cited, Gibertini said.

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