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Conscience Magazine

Italy’s Subtle War against Abortion

By Catholics for Choice August 22, 2016

In his article, “Dangerous Liaisons: The Extreme Religious Lobby at the European Union” (Vol. XXXVII, No. 1), Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty examines the line between conscience rights and the claim for conscientious objection. He denounces the strategies used by the ultraconservative groups in Europe to derail efforts to secure sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality. I thoroughly agree with his concern about the increased presence of extremist religious groups in European institutions and his call for a global alliance to stage a counterattack.

The author briefly refers to the problems created in Italy by an abortion law that allows conscientious objection on grounds of religious belief for medical and paramedical staff. I would like just to add some information to support Perrouty’s position. In Italy, the abortion law was enacted in 1978 after six years of intense advocacy.

When the Radical Party organized the first flash mob in favor of abortion rights in the spring of 1972, we were only 12 people marching. In December 1975, there were more than 50,000 women and some men marching through the streets of Rome. More than 500,000 signatures were collected to call for a referendum to abolish the abortion law that was included in the fascist penal code of 1930. Parliament was dissolved to avoid the referendum.

Due to the defeat of a 1981 referendum to abolish the 1978 law, the antichoice movement has not tried to change legislation. Instead, it has used more subtle tactics, such as inducing doctors and other medical staff to claim conscientious objection, harassing women in hospitals—especially during therapeutic abortions—and lobbying for a heavy fine for women who have a clandestine abortion.

Until a few years ago, the abortion law in Italy could be considered a success story. After a peak of 233,976 interventions in 1983, they have constantly diminished to reach 100,000 in 2013. In the same year, the number of clandestine abortions was estimated at 15,000 by the Ministry of Health. This data is deemed unrealistic by some medical associations, considering that the number of miscarriages has increased by 40 percent since 1993. Nowadays, young women buy the pills RU486 or Cytotec through the Internet, and only in case of hemorrhage do they go to the hospital.

The increase in clandestine abortions is certainly due to the abnormal increase in conscientious objection, which has reached an average of 70 percent in the country as a whole, with a significant difference between the northern and southern regions. Several women’s networks and doctors’ associations have started questioning if it still makes sense to allow conscientious objection for the medical staff who object to abortion and even modern contraception, both allowed by state laws.

In a country that is becoming more and more secular, where 40 percent of the couples do not marry in church and many children are not baptized, in most cases conscientious objection on abortion is not related to religious beliefs. The reality is that nonobjectors face many technical difficulties in performing abortion in public facilities and, in cases of therapeutic abortion, they often are denounced by Catholic integralists who attack those who they perceive as rejecting Catholic thinking. In the end, this has a negative impact on their careers.

Once again women’s organizations are getting organized. The Council of Europe has recently condemned Italy for the second time for not applying the abortion law. Last May, a public hospital in Rome had advertised two positions for gynecologists, specifying that they should not be conscientious objectors. For the moment, the strategy is to have other hospitals follow this example and keep on giving support and visibility to doctors who still help women who have decided to have an abortion.

Development economist, journalist, activist
Rome, Italy

Catholics for Choice

was founded in 1973 to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health.