09/12/2022

Italy’s surging far-right parties have been eroding abortion rights at the regional level, adding further hurdles to what was already an obstacle course for many women. With Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing coalition tipped to win the country’s general election on Sunday, there are fears the same policies could be replicated at the national level. 

When Silvia* was taken off the pill on medical grounds, her doctor did not mention the possibility of using other contraceptive methods. When she ended up with an unwanted pregnancy months later, the same doctor chose to ignore her request for an abortion

Over the next 10 days, the young woman from rural Abruzzo raced from one health centre to another looking for a way to terminate her pregnancy. By the time she found a clinic willing to help her in the neighbouring Marche region, the deadline for a medical abortion there had lapsed, meaning she would have to undergo a surgical procedure she was hoping to avoid. 

“It’s bad enough having to make such a decision,” said the 35-year-old mother of one, voicing her anguish and shame at the process. “It’s a lot worse when you have to repeat the same things to a dozen strangers, waiting in long lines, and hear them answer things like, ‘Have you given it proper thought?’” 

Silvia’s obstacle race tells the story of a state that has abdicated its responsibility to uphold women’s hard-won rights – and of a concerted political effort to make a difficult situation worse. It also highlights the crucial work carried out by a small number of health professionals and activists plugging a hole in Italian healthcare, many of whom are delaying retirement because no one will replace them. 

Italy legalised abortion in 1978, making the procedure freely available during the first 90 days of pregnancy. In practice, however, women face obstacles at every turn, from doctors refusing to approve or carry out abortions to regional governments ignoring the law and staffing key agencies with anti-abortion activists. 

Silvia was fortunate to land at AIED, a non-profit family clinic in the town of Ascoli Piceno that provides abortion services in an area where the public service fails to. The clinic’s deputy head Tiziana Antonucci flagged a “lack of political will” to properly enforce the law. 

“It’s up to the regions to guarantee abortion services and they are failing in their duty. Some are even adding further hurdles,” she said, pausing to take a phone call from another anguished patient who was denied an abortion by her gynaecologist. 

The town of Ascoli Piceno, at the foot of the Apennines mountain range.
The town of Ascoli Piceno, at the foot of the Apennines mountain range. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

New hurdles are being raised in regions administered by far-right parties, like Marche and Abruzzo, where Giorgia Meloni’s party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) rules in coalition with the anti-immigrant Lega of Matteo Salvini. Women’s rights activists fear the same could happen nationwide after the country’s general election on September 25, in which Meloni and her allies are tipped to win a sweeping majority

Marche, a picturesque central region wedged in between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea, was once reliably moderate in its politics – but the mood has changed. Its equal opportunities councillor, in charge of women’s rights, is openly opposed to abortion. When Italy’s health ministry issued guidelines in 2020 allowing women to have non-surgical abortions as outpatients until nine weeks of pregnancy, the regional government refused to implement them. 

“The guidelines were designed to relieve the pressure on hospitals at the height of the pandemic, but the authorities here rejected them on ideological grounds,” said Antonucci. “They didn’t care about public health, the risk of contagion, or the risk of complications from delaying abortions,” she added. “The only objective was to raise more obstacles for women.” 

When AIED was founded back in 1953, its first battle was to repeal a Fascist-era law that labelled contraception a crime “against the Italian race”. Antonucci says similar language has resurfaced in recent years amid mounting anxiety over Italy’s declining birthrate. Carlo Ciccioli, the Brothers of Italy group leader in Marche’s regional council, has dismissed abortion as a “rearguard battle” and warned of “ethnic substitution” in Italian schools. 

Polls say the right-wing coalition of Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini's Lega and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia could win a sweeping majority in Sunday's election.
Polls say the right-wing coalition of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia could win a sweeping majority in Sunday’s election. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

A scion of Italy’s post-fascist right, Meloni’s party has made bolstering Italy’s low birthrate a key priority. At a recent rally in Milan, she warned that the “Italian nation” was “destined to disappear”. Like other far-right oufits, her party has supplemented its nationalist, anti-immigrant pitch with messages about conservative social values and the protection of traditional families. Its motto is “God, homeland, family”. 

Brothers of Italy denies it plans to repeal the country’s landmark abortion law, arguing instead that it will “improve” it by guaranteeing “alternatives to abortion”. Its policy platform contains ambiguous language, such as a pledge to “protect life from the beginning”. At a rally staged by Spain’s far-right Vox party in June, Meloni shouted: “Yes to the culture of life! No to the culture of death!”  

Influencer takes on Meloni 

The Meloni juggernaut hit a curb on August 24 when her party’s thinly disguised efforts to frustrate abortion rights were denounced in an Instagram story sent out to 27 million smartphones. Its author was Chiara Ferragni, Italy’s best-known influencer, who claimed Brothers of Italy had made it “practically impossible” for a woman to have an abortion in Marche.  

“This is a policy which risks becoming national if the right wins the elections,” said the former model and businesswoman, whose husband, prominent rapper Fedez, has also sparred with the far right. “Now is the time to act and to ensure that these things do not happen,” she added. 

Ferragni’s unrivalled audience ensured her post triggered a furious row, pushing abortion rights into the limelight. Her comments drew angry complaints from the right and opportunistic plaudits from left-wing parties usually accustomed to sweeping the subject under the rug. 

“She cast a spotlight on Marche – and we certainly thank her for raising the issue,” said AIED’s Antonucci. “But similar difficulties can be encountered in regions across Italy,” she added, noting that centre-left administrations have done little to tackle the many obstacles to abortion. 

One prominent hurdle is the high number of medical practitioners who refuse to carry out or assist in abortions, ostensibly on moral grounds. They account for two thirds of all gynaecologists in Italy, according to the health ministry’s latest tally, though the figure conceals significant regional disparities. 

While the law protects health workers’ right to be “conscientious objectors”, it also states that the authorities have a duty to ensure abortions can be carried out at all public facilities. That obligation is routinely flouted. Data published in May by the Luca Coscioni Association, which advocates for abortion rights, found that objectors exceeded 80 percent of staff at 72 hospitals across the country, including 22 where the figure was 100 percent. 

To get around such roadblocks, feminist groups like Obiezione Respinta (Objection Overruled) have created interactive online maps where women can warn others where they will be turned away. Such initiatives are a crucial help to women abandoned by the state, said Marina Toschi, one of two gynaecologists who carry out abortions in Ascoli on behalf of AIED. 

“If you live in Milan or some other big city, you’re mostly fine. But if you come from a small village in the Marche, it’s a whole different matter,” she said. “It’s a jungle. There’s no information, no helpline, no way of knowing who will help you and who won’t. The state should accompany you, but it doesn’t. Instead, you must follow the cursed path, relying only on friends, feminist groups and yourself.” 

‘Saboteurs of the law’ 

A “combative pensioner”, Toschi travels twice a month to Ascoli from her home in Umbria, crossing the Sybilline Mountains steeped in legends of matriarchal societies subdued by Christianity. 

“Pressure from the Church” is one reason the Italian state has failed to uphold women’s reproductive rights, she said, “starting from schools where sex education is glossed over and contraception often taboo”. The pattern is much the same in higher education: “One can do five years of specialised studies in gynaecology without knowing how to fit a contraceptive coil or what an abortion pill even looks like.” 

AIED's Tiziana Antonucci shows old posters used in schools to provide sex education, which the education system seldom provides.
AIED’s Tiziana Antonucci shows old posters used in schools to provide sex education, which the education system seldom provides. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

The combination of societal pressure, lack of funding and dim career prospects ensures health workers continue to steer clear of abortions in later years, added the gynaecologist, for whom “moral” objection is often based on expediency. 

“Forget ethical objections – if doctors were paid €100 for an abortion they’d be lining up to do them,” she quipped. “But when all the money is put elsewhere, why waste your time and career prospects helping out the poor souls begging for an abortion?” 

Toschi argues that the excessive focus on objectors deflects attention from the root of the problem – those she describes as “saboteurs” of the law. They include politicians who staff family planning clinics with “pro-life” activists, pharmacists who refuse to dispense morning-after pills, hospital managers who fail to hire qualified non-objectors, and authorities that allow them to get away with this scot-free. 

Marte Manca, a member of the feminist group Nonunadimeno (Not one [woman] less), said opponents of Italy’s abortion law have become increasingly assertive, inflicting what she describes as “psychological terrorism” on women who seek to terminate a pregnancy.  

“Pro-life activists have infiltrated hospitals and family planning clinics, spreading their word in state facilities that should be secular,” she said. “Their aim is to make women feel guilty and delay abortions as much as they can – which is dangerous, because it means playing with women’s health.” 

A laboratory for the far right 

While successive centre-left administrations “simply ignored the problem”, Manca said right-wing councils in Marche and other regions are making an already difficult situation worse. 

In northern Piedmont, the ruling far-right coalition has offered cash handouts to pregnant women who plan to abort, to convince them to reconsider. In Abruzzo, the first region administered by Brothers of Italy, the party unsuccessfully pushed a law last year that would have required a grave burial for all aborted fetuses, even against the wishes of the woman.  

Aborted fetuses buried at a cemetery near Pesaro in Marche.
Aborted fetuses buried at a cemetery near Pesaro in Marche. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

“They can’t repeal the abortion law, but they can make it even more impracticable,” said Manca, pointing to Marche’s decision to ignore national guidelines on medical abortion, “which effectively makes non-surgical abortions almost impossible”. She cited other policies, including the decision to scrap the region’s sponsorship of the annual gay Pride, as signs of a broader pushback on rights in the region.  

Marche has served as a laboratory for the far right’s policies, according to Paolo Berizzi, a journalist at Italian daily La Repubblica who has been under round-the-clock police protection for the past three years after receiving death threats from neo-fascist groups.  

“They’ve experimented on a local scale a model they are preparing to reproduce at the national level,” said Berizzi, who has written extensively about the extreme right in Italy. “This involves rolling back on certain rights, introducing policies tailored for traditional families, and campaigning against abortion. It’s a path that is anti-progressive, that is opposed to modernity and the principle of equal rights for all, in which men and women are assigned specific roles.” 

Back in Ascoli, AIED’s Antonucci spoke of a strategic plan to occupy key positions – such as the equal opportunities portfolios – in order to shape public policy and boycott certain rights. The far right’s attempts to prevent women from terminating unwanted pregnancies are misguided, she argued, “because history shows you cannot stop abortion – it simply goes underground”.  

Instead of harassing women, she added, governments should fulfil their legal obligation to provide free contraception, which would spare many women the hardship and tragedy of an abortion while also saving the state a lot of money. 

“If anti-abortion campaigners think they can strip citizens of certain rights we fought hard for, they’re mistaken,” Antonucci warned. “There will be no going back.”

*Silvia’s name was changed to protect her privacy 

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