January 3rd, 2007
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ItalyMany states in the US have what are called Safe Haven laws where a Mother can take a child to a hospital, fire house or police station within a certain amount of time after delivery and face no charges of abandonment. These laws are widely controversial for many reasons. But I’m not here to talk about the US state of Safe Haven law. Instead, we’re going to look at a recent, similar happening in Italy, how they feel about birth parents, and what their laws say about the matter.

Here’s the story. A child was abandoned, in the cold. The hospital which the child, Giada, was taken, received many calls for inquiries about adoption as well as offerings of clothes. It gets interested when the spokesperson for the hospital speaks. We first learn that the baby is well, warmed up and might have been born feet first. The umbilical cord was cut with a household item. The interesting part? Here:

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The baby girl is safe and sound but the sadness for her mother remains. Maternity is the most wonderful experience a woman can have, even in difficult cases, in conditions of poverty or without a residence permit. It is good to know that institutions support maternity with concrete aid. In hospital it is possible to give birth anonymously and give up the child without putting one’s own health or that of the baby’s at risk, giving the child the right to grow up in a family. The woman’s right to decide not to recognise the child is protected by law. Even if she is an illegal immigrant, married or unmarried, a woman can give birth to her child in hospital without fear of suffering any sanctions of any kind.” In the case of Giada, the mother, if she wanted to reconsider, has the full right to come together with her again.

I found the whole idea of being able to give birth in a hospital, anonymously, interesting and wondered what prompted that whole idea. Well, it turns out that Italy has a long history of child abandonment. I found a book review which covers the book Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control. I think I may pick it up because the review itself provides some interesting things that we didn’t learn in European history classes.

Hoping to regulate reproduction more effectively, the Church developed strategies for removing bastards from the immoral women who produced them, while simultaneously providing redemption opportunities for “fallen women” by concealing their sinful pregnancies. It showed little interest in the fathers of bastards. Instead, religious institutions that received abandoned babies worked with midwives and local priests to identify unmarried pregnant women. They were to be taken to hospices and prisons, and then forced to pay for their internment by nursing several newborns–but never their own child.

My goodness. Forced to pay by nursing several newborns but not their own? Literally, readers, tears sprung to my eyes. The thought is so inhumane and inconceivable. My chest aches with the sobs of these Mothers. Apparently this idea spread through Eastern Europe, but only in Catholic regions.

It goes on to say that before the church started their intervention, if you will, abandonment rates were more than just high: they were overwhelming.

A fascinating chapter establishes the huge regional variations in illegitimacy, patterns of abandonment, and institutional responses before and after Italy’s unification. Subsequent chapters examine the institutions of local child abandonment: la ruota (a turntable mounted in a secluded wall outside a foundling home, into which women deposited infants); the foundling home; wet-nursing and fostering. Increased abandonment of illegitimate children clearly overwhelmed these institutions in the nineteenth century. Kertzer documents shocking rates of disease and death among abandoned children (and, not incidentally, among their mothers and the women who nursed them). In a final chapter, he shows how high rates of foundling mortality and new biological notions of maternal responsibility led to the closing of Italy’s “wheels” by 1900.

Coming from such a history, I could see why hospitals would want to give Mothers the chance to deliver, in hospital, without reprecussion or fear of losing their anonymity. Again, without starting a war on US State Haven Law, I wonder if the US employed such a program in our own hospitals, what that would do for State Haven law’s acceptance or hatred and what it would do to adoption in general. Again, the anonymity of this process, even in Italy, ends up negating and thus stomping all over the rights of the birth father. Is there a proper answer to this dilemma?

For more information on adoption laws (in general) in Italy, visit this link.

Our prayers go out to little baby Giada this evening and to a Mother who felt she had no option. May they both find health and peace.

One Response to “Abandoned Child in Italy: Part of a Long History”

  1. JudyK says:

    Interesting story and background.

    I wonder if it’s be unusual for a baby to be abandoned in Italy anymore for it to receive such press. In some countries, it’s more the norm for babies to be “abandoned” and then find their ways into orphanages.

    The ways of adoption are certainly varied throughout the world.

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