Italy Takes High-Tech Tactics for Abandoned Babies Alarmed by the rising number of abandoned newborn babies, Italy develops modern ways for mothers to safely leave their infants without being seen.

Italy Takes High-Tech Tactics for Abandoned Babies

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Alarmed by a rising number of abandoned newborn babies, Italy is reinventing the wheel - the medieval foundling wheel, that is. Centuries ago, foundling wheels were located in walls of churches or convents. They were a way for women to safely leave their babies so they could be cared for.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, a new high-tech version has been installed at a hospital in one of Rome's poorest districts.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The Casilino neighborhood is a gray, outlying area filled with unattractive low-cost apartment blocks. The focal point is the sprawling Casilino Polyclinic. Its newer structure, inaugurated in December, looks like a large ATM booth. A poster shows two loving hands holding a newborn, and the words: Don't abandon your baby. Leave it with us. It's written in six languages, including Chinese.

Dr. Piermichele Paolillo(ph), director of the neonatal unit, explains how the baby box works.

Dr. Piermichele Paolillo (Director of Neonatal Unit, Casilino Polyclinic): (Speaking foreign language).

POGGIOLI: The mother, he says, enters the booth from a door on the street, pushes open a glass hatch and deposits her baby in a heated crib on the other side of the glass. Electronic sensors, he says, detect the slightest movement and sound, setting off an alarm for doctors.

Dr. Paolillo said everything worked as planned at 9:30 pm on February 24th. Forty seconds after the alarm went off, the neonatal team entered the booth from the hospital side and found its first arrival, a baby boy.

Dr. PAOLILLO: (Through translator) The baby was about three months old and very well cared for. I've often seen that abandoning a child is an act of love. Many of these mothers want a different and better future for their children.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Dr. PAOLILLO: (Speaking in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: The first foundling wheel, a rotating platform, dates from 1198. It was installed in the wall of the Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican on orders from Pope Innocent III. He'd been dismayed by the number of newborns found caught in the nets of fishermen on the Tiber River.

Today rarely does a month go by without news of a newborn left on a sidewalk or more often in a garbage bin; most are the offspring of illegal immigrants, and many don't survive. Dr. Paolillo says the foundling wheel is meant to help those he calls invisible women, women in serious difficulty, too afraid to seek health care and ignorant of their rights.

Dr. PAOLILLO: (Through translator) We have so many cases here. Young women who have been raped, women held as sex slaves, their passports taken away and forced to prostitute themselves, or else they are women who belong to cultures where it's a stigma to have a child out of wedlock.

POGGIOLI: Gracia Passidi(ph) runs a center assisting women and their unwanted children. She's working on a campaign to paste multilingual posters on garbage bins informing all women, including illegal immigrants, that they have a right to health care and can give birth anonymously in a hospital before abandoning their children.

Ms. GRACIA PASSIDI: (Through translator) We're seeing a return to the 19th century, when servant girls were seduced and abandoned by their masters. These women who come from far away - from Africa, Asia, Latin America - to seek work and to try to improve their life. They're burdened with an unwanted pregnancy and unable to fend for themselves.

POGGIOLI: Russio(ph) is a 31-year Peruvian woman who first came to the center to seek help.

RUSSIO: (Through translator) I now try to help other women who come here. Many had children by Italians and have been abandoned and have no place to go. Others can't keep their kids because otherwise they'd lose their jobs. They're all desperate.

POGGIOLI: Two decades after Italian feminists won legal recognition of women's rights, the plight of immigrant women and their unwanted children appears to be a throwback to an earlier time. In a bid to create a safe environment for a painful decision, Family Affairs Minister Rosy Bindi has proposed installing a high-tech foundling wheel in every maternity ward in the country.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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