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Italy slowly erodes abortion access, riding US wave

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ROME — Italy is quietly squeezing access to abortion in an accelerating campaign energized by America’s bombastic culture war over reproductive rights.

Regional authorities, responsible for health care in Italy, are increasingly funding and giving space to anti-abortion organizations in hospitals and family-planning clinics. Officials are refusing to comply with national guidelines facilitating non-surgical abortions. Some local governments have even offered cash incentives to women who abandon plans to have an abortion.

The far right has fueled this drive to limit abortion access as they have taken control of more local administrations, and are on track to gain ground in Italy’s upcoming election. But conservative Catholics on the left have also buttressed the effort.

Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to strike down America’s guaranteed right to abortion, Italy’s anti-abortion campaigners feel their moment has arrived.  

Mario Adinolfi, leader of Popolo della Famiglia, a conservative Christian movement that opposes abortion, said his group was “ready to ride the wave from the U.S.A., in a fierce battle against the right to kill a baby in the womb.”

It’s exactly what abortion rights advocates have long feared. 

There is “a worrying and duplicitous rise of a powerful, ultra-conservative movement,” said Senator Alessandra Maiorino, who helms the human-rights committee for the progressive 5Star Movement. “Not only in the U.S. but in Europe … which is likely to mount a serious attack on hard-won rights, starting with abortion.”

Legal, but complicated

Italy legalized abortion in 1978, with some limitations.

Abortions are freely available during the first 90 days of pregnancy with a seven-day waiting period — the woman must just receive a declaration that the pregnancy represents a risk to her mental or physical health. After that, abortions are only allowed if there is a serious risk to the mother’s health or fetal anomalies.

Access has also long been complicated because of the Catholic church’s influential role in the Italian health-care system, as well as the high numbers of conscientious objectors among medical practitioners. 

The Council of Europe, the body upholding the European Convention of Human Rights, found in 2016 that in Italy “women seeking access to abortion services continue to face substantial difficulties in obtaining access to such services.”

Seven in 10 gynecologists in Italy refuse to conduct abortions, according to the ministry of health, with the highest level, 85 percent, in Sicily. The church has also forged strong links with regional health authorities, diverting considerable health funding from secular public hospitals to Catholic hospitals, which do not carry out abortions.

A man looks at pro and anti-abortion campaign posters in San Marino | Brigitte Hagemann/AFP via Getty Images

“Because of the Vatican, Italy has always been considered by the Catholic church as its territory,” said Elisabetta Canitano, a gynecologist and president of the abortion rights NGO Vita di Donna. 

According to Canitano, the church objects to abortion not only because of ideological opposition, but to ensure ongoing demand for its services.

“The church wants the poor to keep having children as it depends on state contracts to carry out charity work,” she said.

With nationalism surging across Europe over the past decade, the far right has joined the Catholics in its crusade against abortion, supplementing its anti-immigrant, law-and-order pitch with messages about conservative social values. According to those on the right, “liberal values” have eroded the traditional family structure and are responsible for Italy’s record-low birthrate, an argument meant to stoke fear about recent migrants eventually outnumbering multi-generation Italians.

As far-right politicians gain power in more 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 ministry of health in 2020 allowing patients to have non-surgical abortions as outpatients, which would reduce the time women need to take off work or away from family.

The far-right Brothers of Italy have often fueled the drive.

Last year, the Brothers put forward a motion designating Rome a “city for life,” with funding to encourage “birthrates and motherhood,” allowing anti-abortion groups into family planning clinics. 

And in Abruzzo, the Brothers pushed a regional law last November that would require a grave burial for all aborted fetuses, even against the wishes of the woman. Only fetuses over 26 weeks are usually buried by the health service.

Canitano, the Vita di Donna head, said the measure would not actually reduce abortions, just create a “way of punishing women, making them suffer.”

The Brothers are also behind a €400,000 anti-abortion fund the Piedmont regional government approved last month, with the scope of giving cash payouts to 100 women who abandon their abortion plans.

Elisa Ercoli, president of the women’s rights NGO Differenza Donna, describes the measures as “an attempt to confuse women and reduce the question of abortion to an economic issue.”

A demonstration in central Rome against a reform of the Spain’s abortion law in 2014 | Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

But Lucio Malan, a senator for Brothers of Italy, said his party is merely trying to implement a part of the law legalizing abortion in 1978, which directed state entities to offer women abortion alternatives. And he defended the right of anti-abortion groups to be present in hospitals.

“Italy has the worst birthrate in West,” he said. “While of course they can’t 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 a grave and burial to aborted embryos, saying it was a matter of “human dignity.”

He added: “If the state establishes that what had a heartbeat, that is DNA, should be treated differently to garbage. I don’t understand why a woman or couple, who wanted to be free of the child, and are free of the child, should have a problem with it.”

Domino effect

If the U.S. Supreme Court does ultimately strike down the long-established right to abortion — as a draft opinion POLITICO published revealed it is considering — the decision could give fresh momentum to anti-abortion advocates in Europe, including in Italy.

According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, the Brothers of Italy are positioned to finish first in Italy’s next elections, expected in the spring of 2023. The right-wing League party is also polling third, creating the possibility of a coalition on the right.

While Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, and the Brothers of Italy have both insisted they do not intend to outlaw abortion, Ercoli is certain they will seek to impose more obstacles.

“I am sure they will try and touch this area of rights and re-establish control,” she said. “They don’t need to change the law. They will try and limit access. The application of the law is already greatly reduced, impeding freedom of choice in many regions. It’s easy to attack a system that is already cumbersome.”

ITALY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

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