Sexuality Policy Watch

New Vatican campaign against abortion: The Italian inside story

By Daniela Colombo*

There are many reasons to consider Italian abortion law a success story. It was passed in 1978, only six years after the first rallies of the feminist movement and the radical party. The law on voluntary termination of pregnancy allows abortion to be performed only in public hospitals and private clinics registered with the Ministry of Health, which means that in Italy abortion is fully recognized and addressed as a public health issue. In 1981, the law was re-confirmed by 63 percent of the voters in a referendum called by the anti-choice movement to abolish it. Most importantly yet: since 1976 the number of abortions has constantly diminished. Data collected by the Ministry of Health reports that the number of legal abortions has been reduced from a peak of 234,000 in 1983 to 130,000 in 2006, one third of which were performed for immigrant women. In contrast, unsafe, illegal abortions are estimated to be less than 20,000 a year. Illegal abortions are still performed because women encounter restrictions to accessing the legal procedure in some regions, mainly because medical and paramedical staff allege moral objection to perform legal abortions. It must be noted, however, that some of these professionals provide abortion illegally in private clinics. Catholic-run health institutions are not an exception, as the history behind the recent suicide of a Catholic gynecologist has demonstrated (1).

The Italian anti-choice movement, after the defeat of its 1981 referendum, kept silent for several years. But, not surprisingly, it became very vocal and loud after the election in 2005 of Ratzinger as the new Pope. In December 2007, the Vatican tried, without success, to include abortion in Resolution 62/149, a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Following that, a movement for a global moratorium on abortion started under the leadership of a well known journalist and TV anchor man named Giuliano Ferrara. Ferrara, a former Stalinist, was elected to European parliament on the list of Berlusconi’s Party and is the editor of a small daily newspaper (that circulates no more than 5,000 copies). Just recently, he created a new political party, the Pro-life Association, and is at present running for Senate in several electoral constituencies.

Although it is doubtful that he has any chance of being elected, it must be said that his political speeches and actions have forced the Italian feminist movement “to break the silence on abortion”, which had prevailed in recent years. Most importantly, Ferrara’s voice has opened a huge crack in the Catholic front itself. Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Conference of Italian Bishops, has strongly criticized Ferrara and, in addition, 100 Catholic candidates on the lists of the new Democratic party (including a few belonging to the pro-life movement) have declared that the abortion law is a good law and should be applied in its entirety. Moreover, Mr. Berlusconi and his allies have openly stated that the reform of the abortion law is not in a priority of their political party — Popolo delle libertà. It should be recalled that for Mr. Berlusconi it would be very difficult to express a different position on the matter, since his wife, former actress Veronica Lario, declared a few years ago to have undergone a third trimester therapeutic abortion. Historically in Italy, only one very small party (Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centro, formally allied with Berlusconi’s Party and expected to get about 6 percent of votes) has consistently supported the Vatican position on abortion and family, even though its leader Mr. Casini is divorced. But even they are troubled with the extremist position of Mr. Ferrara.

In other words, when the Italian scenario is more closely examined, the circumstances appear very different from what is portrayed in Catholic communication systems and even some sectors of the mainstream media. The richness and complexity described above is also what explains why Italy was the only place in the world where major public demonstrations against the proposed moratorium on abortion have taken place. However, there are shadows on the horizon, since it is difficult to predict what will happen in Italy after April 13-14, when elections take place. To understand the recent fall of the Prodi government that led to the April elections, it should be recognized that the electoral system enacted by the second Berlusconi government, right before stepping down, is a main factor behind the failure of the central-left government under Prodi. Although electoral polls indicate that the right wing may come back, the situation will make life difficult for any new government being elected. Ferrara and the anti-abortion movement – and by extension the Vatican – can certainly benefit from these instabilities and, most principally, it is quite clear that lots of funding, whose sources are unknown, are pouring into the pockets of these actors.

1) Dr. Ermanno Rossi practiced gynecology in Genoa at the Gaslini Hospital, which is owned by a foundation whose president is Cardinal Bagnasco, Head of the Conference of Italian Bishops. Dr. Rossiis committed suicide on March 10th in Rapallo, after learning that he was under investigation for practicing illegal abortions in his office and in a private clinic run by nuns.

* President of AIDOS (The Italian Association for women in development)

:: Posted in 03/31/2008 ::

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content