It’s rare enough that we find the modern state taking inspiration from the medieval Catholic church in providing care for its citizens. Some countries – my own included – might have been rather sympathetic to the Vatican’s way of doing things until relatively recently, but even that seems to be changing today.
So I was surprised to wake up this morning and read this story in the Guardian, which reports the UN’s condemnation of the spread of ‘baby boxes’, where newborn children can be left anonymously at hospitals or – in at least one case – at a monastery.
The last I heard of a system like this was the one instituted by Pope Innocent III in Rome in or around the start of the thirteenth century. Innocent III’s pontificate was a transformational one – it saw the papacy exerting increasing control over secular politics and over monks and priests throughout Europe, but it was also a time when the pope began to gain increasing political power in and around Rome, loosing the church from its ties to secular power and exerting its own authority.
Along with architectural innovation and the gradual extension of papal influence through the territories surrounding Rome, one of Innocent’s changes was to endow the hospital of Santo Spirito, where a ‘baby box’ was to be found: it was a turntable in the outer wall of the building, allowing children to be left anonymously. Where the bodies of unwanted children had been found washed up in the Tiber, the hope was now that they could be left in the care of the church, which would name them, educate them, and set them up for life.
But that was then, and this is now. Today’s system – derived from Innocent’s Roman model – is not wholly divorced from its Catholic origins, with one Munich ‘baby box’ organised by a monastery. However, the UN report raises a number of serious concerns about the practice today – and the anonymity involved. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that what’s desperately required is “better state provision of family planning, counselling for women and support for unplanned pregnancies”. Amid all of these complexities, though, it’s strange to see a twelfth-century solution still in use to deal with a twenty-first century problem.
The title of this piece and some of its inspiration are drawn from the famous description of contraception laws in the Republic of Ireland as ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’.