If there is a place among the “Western” and “secular” countries where you can see and experience a violent ideological backlash against women, that is Italy.
Since the introduction of Law 194, in 1978 – after a period of tough feminist and anti-clerical struggle – abortion has been legally guaranteed in public hospitals within the 90th day of pregnancy and until the 5th month if the abortion is necessary for medical reasons. The same law established that the “consultori” (public centres providing health services to families, instituted in 1975) must help women during pregnancy or those having sex-related medical needs and provide information about their situation. This change turned these institutions into a fundamental link between public health institutions and women. Once it came into effect, the law obliged them to provide assistance about emergency contraception and abortion.
Before 1975 the consultori where private clinics, mostly run by catholic associations and in some particular advanced cases by non-religious political or medical associations, whose goal was to inform about contraception. Abortion was illegal, and this meant – as it always means – that women had to terminate their pregnancies at unregulated clinics, risking their lives. Before Law 194, illegal abortions had reached 350,000 per year, and they were the third biggest cause of death for women in Italian hospitals.
After 1978 the number of women that had recourse to abortion (now legal, public and free) consistantly decreased, while the number of consultori grew: there are 2200 public consultori and around 100 private ones. Since 2006 they have been under a fierce attack. Their number started to decrease, and nearly 300 of them closed between 2006 and 2009. This trend goes along with the growing influence “Comunione e Liberazione”, a Catholic organization rooted in the Italian public healthcare system.
Founded as a youth movement in reaction to the ’68 liberatory wave, it became more and more connected with political and economic power, until it became one of the most powerful organizations in Italy. The most clear example is in Lombardia, the richest and most densely populated Italian region. Its governor, Roberto Formigoni, is now at his fourth term, and he is a leading CL figure. As a result, from 1997 to 2002, public hospitals in Lombardia have lost 7000 beds, while the number of private hospitals which receive public repayment has grown. Needless to say, many private hospitals are run by Catholic organizations. But its not just Lombardia. Everywhere around Italy public hospital hierarchies are climbed and conquered by CL members or figures close to CL. This is true not just for managers, but also for doctors or nurses. And the hardest battle is over abortion and women bodies.
More and more often the medical and non-medical personnel in public hospitals and consultori decide to “object” and declare themselves anti-abortion. All around Italy 70% of gynaecologists working in public hospitals are anti-abortion, with peaks of 90% in some areas. Statistics regarding anaesthetists, obstetricians and nurses working in gynaecology departments where abortion should be guaranteed are not much different. In Southern Italy, where the situation is the most serious, some hospitals don’t even have a department for abortion, because all the personnel members are anti-abortion. The consequence is that obtaining an abortion in public hospitals across Italy – whatever the reason for the woman’s choice – is very difficult, and it often becomes a path of isolation, blame and pain. The terrible case of a woman in Messina, Sicily, has become notorious, but not so different from many others: after receiving a diagnosis of severe malformation of the foetus, she decided to terminate the pregnancy. But when the medicine induced contractions started, she received no medical assistance at all, and had to abort with the only help of her mother in the bathroom of the hospital.
Things are difficult even for women asking for emergency contraception. Although in this case objection is illegal, many doctors refuse to give them a prescription, and some pharmacies also refuse to sell the morning-after pill. When anti-abortionists work in the consultori, the problem is even more serious, as these institutions often receive very young girls or foreign women. Recently a court in Piedmont (a region governed by the right-wing secessionist party Northern League) has stated the right for the pro-life movement to meet the women inside the consultori, against the appeal by some local feminist organizations. Pro-life volunteers will be allowed to talk to women that are looking for emergency contraception or for abortion inside public healthcare centres. Another hard blow for the Law 194, which has been abolished in practice in many public institutions.
Women’s organizations never gave up the battle for the right to decide, and some intellectuals (like Loredana Lipperini or Chiara Lalli) are also giving these struggles a bigger voice, writing books or spreading information about a topic that is still a taboo to this day. But the silence and the social stigma that still hits women who decide to have an abortion, or even just ask for emergency contraception, is a big obstacle that makes it more difficult to bring this theme to the wider public, especially when the most severe economic crisis since the end of the WWII is hitting the country.
[en] L. Caldwell, “Abortion in Italy”, 1981
[en]S. S. Bettarini and S. S. D’Andrea, Induced Abortion in Italy: Levels, Trends and Characteristics, 1996
[en] Abortion in Italy – Wikipedia
[it] The Messina case: doctors refuse to give medical help to a woman, she had to perform abortion alone (by L. Lipperini)
[it] Pro-life organizations in Piedmont (Jan. 2012)
[it] “Lobby of God” Il Fatto Quotidiano (about the power if christian organizations in public healtcare system)
[it] History of Consultori – Linkiesta
[it] Chiara Lalli website
[it] Italian abortion legislation – Wikipedia
[it] Consultorio – Wikipedia