Activists and far-right politicians have seized on Italy’s low birth rate and the attention on Ireland’s referendum on abortion to boost their pro-life campaign.
As the 40th anniversary of Italy’s legalisation of abortion approaches, the renewed effort also comes as the far-right League, which contains many anti-abortion militants, stands on the brink of forming a government with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement following inconclusive general elections in March.
Ahead of the 22 May anniversary, ProVita, the Italian pro-life association, has published a booklet repeating debunked claims that women who have an abortion could be more prone to breast cancer and suicide or become alcoholics or drug addicts.
The Irish abortion referendum
The move came after authorities in Rome covered up a huge poster featuring an 11-week-old foetus in the womb on a wall in the Vatican area in April. A message alongside the image said: “You are here because your mother has not aborted you.”
“The plan was to intensify the campaign ahead of the anniversary,” said Alessandro Fiore, a spokesman for ProVita. “But we increased it even more after the poster was censored; we were contacted by many people from across Italy who wanted to do something similar in their towns. The Irish referendum, by chance, also helps to strengthen our message.”
Toni Brandi, the president of ProVita, joined counterparts in Ireland on a recent visit, as the country prepares for a landmark referendum on liberalising strict abortion laws on 25 May.
Italians voted to legalise abortion in a similar plebiscite in 1978. But 70.4% of gynaecologists still refuse to terminate pregnancies for moral reasons, which means it is almost impossible for women to access a safe procedure. That number is around 90% in southern regions, while in the central Molise region only one doctor carries out terminations. Last year a woman in Padua, a city in the northern Veneto region, had to visit 23 hospitals before finding one that would end her pregnancy. Doctors in Rome who do not object to the procedure are banned from going for jobs at hospitals managed by the Vatican.
Politicians from the League and smaller far-right party Brothers of Italy are helping to galvanise the pro-life campaign. Massimiliano Romeo, a senator with the League, said: “Six million children have been killed in the womb since 1978, then they say we have to import migrants to boost the population.”
If the League succeeds in entering government, the party has pledged to make it a priority to better inform women of what they say are the physical and psychological consequences of abortion.
But claims that abortion leads to depression and suicide, causes cancer and affects future fertility have long been dismissed by medical organisations.
Emma Bonino, a politician who had an illegal abortion at a young age, was at the forefront of bringing about the enactment of the so-called Law 94. Until 1978, illegal abortions were the third-biggest cause of death for women in Italy.
“The campaigning by this group is nothing new,” Bonino, a former foreign minister, said. “They have been there for the last 40 years, as a minority movement – they have the right to exist and express their opinion but we have always managed to fight them. Our duty now is to fight organised conscientious objection – which actually has nothing to do with conscientiously objecting but career.”
Many medics fear being pushed out of the system or not being hired if they perform abortions. And those that do are often shamed. In the late 1990s a doctor killed himself after being exposed for terminating pregnancies in secret.
Ministry of Health data shows that the number of abortions performed each year fell from 233,976 in 1983 to 84,926 in 2016, while the number of moral objectors has risen. Unwanted pregnancies also significantly decreased after Law 94 was introduced, as people could avail themselves of information about contraception which until then had been forbidden thanks to a ban stemming from the Benito Mussolini-era.
There is no data available on the real demand for abortion or on the numbers carried out illegally. In recent years a significant demand is said to come from migrant women who have been forced into prostitution.
Silvana Agatone, a gynaecologist in Rome who does not object, said one of the reasons the health ministry is able to register a decline is because medics who once performed abortions, and who were required to report each procedure, have retired.
“They no longer get as many report cards each month but it doesn’t mean to say women are no longer having abortions,” she said. “It means that illegal abortions are increasing.”
There are fears that access to safe abortion will become even more difficult in future, as fewer medical students are receiving training.
“The Catholic-right has conquered the hospitals – there are so many militants,” said Elisabetta Canitano, a gynaecologist and president of the feminist association Vita di Donna.
“Even if the foetus is incompatible with life – they say ‘God sent it, so God will take it when he decides’. They insist that the woman must go ahead with the pregnancy, even if the child is then sent to a hospice to die.”