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ROME – Italy is quietly pushing for access to abortion in an accelerating campaign fueled by America’s bombastic culture war over reproductive rights.
Regional authorities responsible for healthcare in Italy are increasingly funding and giving space to anti-abortion organizations in hospitals and family planning clinics. Officials refuse to comply with national guidelines to facilitate non-surgical abortions. Some local governments have even offered cash incentives to women who give up abortion plans.
The far right has fueled this push to restrict access to abortion as it has seized control of more local governments and is on course to gain ground in Italy’s upcoming elections. But conservative Catholics on the left have also backed the effort.
Now that the US Supreme Court is poised to scrap America’s guaranteed right to an abortion, Italy’s anti-abortion campaigners feel their hour has come.
Mario Adinolfi, leader of Popolo della Famiglia, a conservative Christian anti-abortion movement, said his group is “ready to ride the US wave in a bitter fight against the right to kill a baby in the womb “.
This is exactly what pro-choice advocates have long feared.
There is “a worrying and double-dealing rise of a powerful, ultra-conservative movement,” said Senator Alessandra Maiorino, who heads the progressive 5-Star Movement’s human rights committee. “Not just in the US, but in Europe … which will likely bring a serious attack on hard-won rights, starting with abortion.”
Legal but complicated
Italy legalized abortion with some restrictions in 1978.
Abortions are free for the first 90 days of pregnancy with a seven-day waiting period – the woman just needs to receive a statement that the pregnancy poses a risk to her mental or physical health. After that, abortions are only allowed if there is a serious danger to the health of the mother or if the fetus has malformations.
Access was difficult for a long time also due to the influential role of the Catholic Church in the Italian health system and the high number of conscientious objectors among doctors.
The Council of Europe, the body responsible for complying with the European Convention on Human Rights, found in 2016 that in Italy “women seeking access to abortion services continue to face significant difficulties in accessing such services”.
According to the Ministry of Health, seven out of ten gynecologists in Italy refuse abortions, with the highest rate in Sicily at 85 percent. The Church has also forged close ties with regional health authorities, diverting significant healthcare resources from secular public hospitals to Catholic hospitals that do not perform abortions.
“Because of the Vatican, Italy has always been considered by the Catholic Church as its territory,” said Elisabetta Canitano, gynecologist and president of the abortion rights NGO Vita di Donna.
According to Canitano, the Church opposes abortion not only for ideological reasons, but also to ensure continued demand for its services.
“The church wants the poor to keep having children because it depends on government contracts to do charity work,” she said.
As nationalism surged across Europe over the past decade, the extreme right has joined Catholics in their anti-abortion crusade, complementing their anti-immigrant law-and-order presentation with messages about conservative social values. According to the right, “liberal values” have undermined traditional family structures and are responsible for Italy’s record-low birth rate, an argument that has fueled fears that recent migrants would eventually outnumber Italians by several generations.
As far-right politicians rise to power in a growing number of regions and cities, they have targeted long-established women’s rights.
A number of regions, including Umbria and Le Marche, are refusing to apply national guidelines issued by Italy’s Health Ministry in 2020, allowing patients to have non-surgical abortions as outpatients, which would reduce the time it takes women to to leave their job or family.
Italy’s far-right brethren have often fueled the drive.
Last year, the brothers tabled a motion declaring Rome a “city of life,” with funds to promote “birth rates and motherhood,” allowing anti-abortion groups to attend family planning clinics.
And in Abruzzo, the brothers pushed through a regional law last November requiring burial for all aborted fetuses, even against the woman’s will. Only fetuses over 26 weeks are usually buried by the health service.
Canitano, the head of Vita di Donna, said the measure wouldn’t actually reduce abortion, it would just create a “way to punish women and make them suffer.”
The brothers are also behind a €400,000 anti-abortion fund approved by Piedmont’s regional government last month, aiming to provide cash payments to 100 women who give up abortion plans.
Elisa Ercoli, president of the women’s rights NGO Differencea Donna, describes the measures as “an attempt to confuse women and reduce the issue of abortion to an economic problem”.
But Lucio Malan, a senator from the Brothers of Italy, said his party was only trying to implement part of the 1978 Legalization of Abortion Act, which directed government agencies to offer women abortion alternatives. And he defended the right of anti-abortion groups to be present in hospitals.
“Italy has the worst birth rate in the West,” he said. “While of course they must not be allowed to harass people, we should allow them to be present to show that abortion is not the only solution.”
Malan defended the initiative to give aborted embryos a grave and burial, saying it was a “human dignity” issue.
He added, “If the state stipulates that what had a heartbeat, which is DNA, should be treated differently than trash, the kid should have a problem with that.”
Should the US Supreme Court finally quash long-established abortion rights — as revealed in a draft opinion published by POLITICO that it is considering — the decision could give new impetus to anti-abortion advocates in Europe, including Italy.
According to polls by POLITICO, the brothers of Italy are positioned to take first place in Italy’s next elections, expected in spring 2023. The right-wing Lega party is also in third place, creating the possibility of a coalition on the right.
While Matteo Salvini, leader of the league, and the Italy brothers have both insisted they have no intention of banning abortion, Ercoli is sure they will try to erect more obstacles.
“I’m sure they will try to touch that area of rights and restore control,” she said. “You don’t have to change the law. They will try to restrict access. The application of the law is already severely restricted, which hinders freedom of choice in many regions. It’s easy to attack a system that’s already sluggish.”
ITALY PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS POLL
For more survey data from across Europe, see POLITICS poll of polls.
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