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Europeans Adopt Old Method to Save Unwanted Newborns

November 06, 2005|Frances D'Emilio | Associated Press Writer

NAPLES, Italy — For centuries, desperately poor mothers came to the Church of the Annunziata 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 and 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 la vita (cradles for life) in Italy.

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.

The use of baby slots is increasingly advocated or under consideration by doctors and social workers who say Europe's anti-abandonment strategies are inadequate. Some point to the rising number of illegal immigrant women, whose underground 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 already offered guarantees that women could give birth anonymously in hospitals and leave the baby behind. In July, Italian Equal Opportunity Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo launched a campaign to raise awareness about a 1975 law that also guaranteed that women here illegally wouldn't be deported if they decided on an anonymous birth.

Trying to broaden the campaign, Italian female deputies in the European Parliament proposed "Operation Live" in September. The plans include toll-free telephone numbers across Europe that would help women learn about their options and a system that would monitor child abandonment.

A week before the Operation Live initiative was unveiled in Strasbourg, Italians were shocked by two 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 she sought treatment for hemorrhaging.

Two days after that arrest came reports that a 23-year-old Ukrainian illegally working in a bar near Naples also left her baby in a trash can. She and four other undocumented immigrants, who were believed to have helped her discard her infant, were arrested.

This summer, the grisly discovery in eastern Germany of nine newborns whose remains were stuffed into flower pots and a fish tank 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 SterniPark, a group that organized the babyklappe program in Hamburg, Germany.

Hamburg started its program in 2000 after a newborn was found dead in a garbage container. The first babyklappe was established at a day care center near a 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 SterniPark's hotline, 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.

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 placed in a babyklappe in the last five years.

Baby-slots would help a woman "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.

Apparently no central office keeps track of the 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 antiabortion group, Movement for Life, has placed half a dozen "cradles for life" near convents in Italy over the past decades, but says no babies have ever been left in them.

Associated Press writers Evan Berland, Sam Cage, Andrea Dudikova, Pablo Gorondi, Karel Janicek, Danica Kirka, David Rising, Karl Ritter and Jan Sliva contributed to this report.

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