'Foundling Wheel' Collects Unwanted Babies

She was only four hours old when she was abandoned on a truck; her umbilical cord still hanging out.

"At five in the morning, two policemen brought Rachele to the hospital," remembers Dr. Piermichele Paolillo, head of the neonatology department of Casilino Hospital in Rome. "I knew Rachele would be fine, but I couldn't stop thinking that if it had been winter and if she hadn't been found on time, she would have died."

It is because of this baby with eastern features that Dr. Paolillo conceived the idea of a heated cradle area where parents could safely and anonymously abandon their unwanted newborns. And Saturday, a 4-month-old baby was the first to be left in the crib.

Unfortunately, he will be only one among many others abandoned at the hospital.

"This is the hospital with the highest number of abandoned babies, 30 between 2004 and 2006," Paolillo told ABC News. "To save baby lives and avoid that they be abandoned on the streets, we decided to go back to the past. We revived the medieval foundling wheels, which now, in 2006, has become a high-tech wheel."

A long time ago, as far back as the 8th century, it was common for desperate mothers to lay an unwanted child on the so-called "foundling wheel," a wooden barrel that was half inside the wall of a convent and half outside. Mothers could leave their babies there without being seen and the nuns would come to collect them straight afterwards.

Today's version of the wheel follows the same concept, but has been updated. The barrel is now a room with a heated cradle inside. Through a glass window, parents can leave the baby in the crib. A camera is pointed on it and the room is endowed with sensors that alert the hospital staff once the baby is put in the cradle. The whole system allows whoever brings the child to remain unidentified.

At the hospital, the baby is assisted by a team of social workers and psychologists that follow him or her through the adoption process.

Maririna Tuccinardi, head of youth projects for the Rome City Council told ABC News that adoption for these babies' is a certainty.

"For every child that has been abandoned, there are at least 50 couples selected for adoption," she said.

Often, abandoned babies are children of immigrant women. As Dr. Paolillo put it, "They [the immigrants] are the vulnerable side of the population."

He added that many women who abandon babies today in Italy are believed to be clandestine, with no financial means to keep their babies and take care of them. Thus, it is not a coincidence that the new foundling wheel has been implemented in one of the poorest areas of the city with a very high concentration of foreigners.

Raffaela Milano, the Rome city councilwoman for social affairs, said restoring the old tradition of the foundling wheel can offer desperate mothers' a "further option." Under Italian law, any woman has the right to give birth anonymously in all hospitals but many are not aware of it.

Milano told ABC News that the new wheel "is a message to many women who are scared of any authority because of their past and the social and political context where they come from; therefore, they relate differently to hospitals. We need to let them know that in this country, they can give birth in peace, and no-one is going to take their names or denounce them."

It could be said that the wheel may encourage people to abandon their children, but both Milano and Paolillo say that this is only a way to give the mother and the child one more chance in extreme situations, preventing babies like Rachele from dying lost in the middle of the streets.