TURIN, Italy – Far-right politicians are set to apply limits to abortion access across Italy if they win national elections in September, reproductive rights and counter-extremism organisations fear.
The end of Roe v. Wade – the 1973 case that legalised abortion across the US – earlier this year sent shockwaves across the US and the rest of the world, sparking worries that other countries could also look to limit reproductive rights.
Getting an abortion in Italy has always been fraught with difficulties meanwhile, despite abortion being legal here since 1978. That’s because up to 64.6 percent of gynaecologists and 44.6 percent of anaesthetists conscientiously object to abortion, creating a situation where abortion access varies massively over the country, with dozens of hospitals having objection rates of up to 80 percent. The rising popularity of far-right and right-wing political parties, particularly in the north of the country, has emboldened anti-abortion activists and legislators.
In September, Italians will vote in a general election triggered by the collapse of the centre-left coalition government last month. It’s widely expected that far-right parties like Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini’s League – Lega in Italian – could find themselves in power. And that’s put abortion access in the firing line.
Piemonte in northern Italy is one of the regions were gynaecologists refusing to administer abortions has been coupled with far-right political activity focusing on abortion. Sarah Disabato, a regional councillor with the Five Star Movement (M5S), has tried to defend abortion rights, criticising a hospital for being opaque about how many abortions it was providing and calling out local far-right politicians for trying to limit access to abortions. She's also worried that what's been happening here could be replicated across the country, “What would happen in our country is what has happened in Piemonte.”
In this region, the Brothers of Italy party has been responsible for introducing a slow stream of attempts to thwart or persuade people against having abortions. These moves have been spearheaded by councillor Maurizio Marrone, who succeeded in getting approval for a fund to pay people to not have abortions, to be administered by anti-abortion groups.
Marrone was once best known for opening a consulate for the pro-Russian so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in Turin, way back in 2016; now he’s known for championing the reversal of abortion rights in Piemonte.
Marrone’s party is poised to do well in September’s national elections, with leader Giorgia Meloni tipped to create a right wing coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italian and Matteo Salvini’s Lega to form a governing majority. She has said her party does not want to abolish abortion, but she’s also been a vocal admirer of Marrone’s changes in Piemonte, branding his actions “a courageous choice”.
Earlier this month, she told the Italian news outlet Panorama that if her party's successful it will “support women who do not want to abort” across the country – something Marrone said on Facebook meant that his Piemonte fund could become nationwide.
Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni. Photo: Riccardo Fabi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
There has been a slow but steady drip of moves to restrict abortion access in Piemonte, led by the far-right.
First, Marrone put forward a proposal in August 2020 to stop pills being administered in day hospitals and outpatient clinics, and said that people should be hospitalised for three days instead if they wanted a pharmacological abortion.
Not only did this fly in the face of the Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza’s newly issued guidance at the time, which stated people could get abortion pills from these very places without hospitalisation; it directly copied what far-right politicians from Salvini’s Lega party had tried to propose in Umbria in central Italy, which is the reason the minister brought in the guidance in the first place – to stop Umbrian politicians from limiting people’s access to abortion in this way.
Then, Marrone used an administrative act to allow anti-abortion groups access into counselling centres, where they can set up information desks. And then came the fund, the Fondo vita nascente (Emerging Life Fund, in English), voted in by a majority in the regional government in April to finance anti-abortion groups in the region with €400,000 (about £335,000) for the purposes of granting payouts to people who decide to not proceed with abortions. “We have shown once again that Piemonte is on the side of life,” he said at the time.
“The right to abortion is at risk,” said Disabato, the local M5S politician. “Now the anti-abortion groups are being financed, now they’re allowed to consult women. I’m worried that what’s being put at risk here in Piemonte will also be put at risk in Italy.”
On an oppressively hot summer afternoon in Turin, about 10 or so women are waiting at the hospital of Ospedale Sant’Anna, the city’s obstetric and gynaecological healthcare facility. Three are on their phones, two are reading books. Everyone seems relaxed.
To the casual observer, none of them look pregnant – that’s how early their pregnancies are. Some have plasters on their elbows, signs that their blood has already been tested. By the end of the day, all of the 10 or so women waiting in this reception room will have had their first abortion pill to begin their terminations. Assuming all is OK, they will leave with their second, to take in the comfort of their own home.
This hospital is the workplace of one of Italy’s most famous pro-abortion voices, Dr Silvio Viale, who pioneered Italy’s abortion pill, known as the Ru486. He’s one of the reasons why despite all the far-right noise, Piemonte has one of the highest rates of pharmacological abortion in the country.
It is technically his day off – as well as being a gynaecologist at this hospital, he’s a left-wing city councillor in Turin – but he is still here in his office today, tying loose ends together and constantly being taken to one side by a nurse here, a doctor there. He is available 24/7 on his mobile to all his patients, which is the only object on his otherwise bare desk. A small electric fan perseveres in the corner against the heatwave. Viale, greying and in his mid-60s, seems to be the only man working here.
He tells me two things with great pride: that the Ospedale Sant’Anna performs more abortions in just one building than 12 regions across Italy manage to provide across a whole year, and that not a single politician trying to attack abortion rights has ever come in to see the hospital for themselves. He’s not even bothered by the region’s conscientious objection rate, 161 out of 364 gynaecologists. “It’s normal,” he says, “not everyone in oncology does tumours. In medicine, specialists don’t do everything.”
But as Viale says, not everywhere is as prolific as this hospital in Piemonte. There are between 2-3,000 abortions in the Ospedale Sant’Anna every year, whereas in the entire neighbouring region of Valle D’aosta, only 116 took place in 2020 and 151 in 2019. Viale says that they have extremely long waiting lists and only work certain days of the week, meaning that many travel to Turin to get the procedure instead. In the south, conscientious objection rates are especially high; 2 out of 3 gynaecologists in Basilicata oppose abortion. In Cosenza, a city in the southern region of Calabria, the only non-objector in a local hospital recently left their job, meaning people will now have to travel 50km if they wish to terminate a pregnancy.
Things are likely to get worse for patients seeking healthcare if such low-access regions compound with increasing far right proposals to limit abortion access. Apart from Umbria and Piemonte, other initiatives to limit abortion rights have taken place across the country that have also been led by Brothers of Italy; anti-abortion groups were also allowed into clinics in Rome which the party named a “city for life” and in Abruzzo, southern Italy, they pushed for a regional law requiring a grave burial for all aborted foetuses, even against the mother’s wishes.
Leah Hoctor, senior regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said that “the Italian authorities are failing to live up to their human rights obligations to guarantee access to abortion care in practice” and that “any moves to rollback entitlements to abortion care in Italy or to introduce new barriers would fly in the face of the overwhelming trend across the region towards the removal of legal and policy restrictions on abortion.”
Disabato, the councillor in Piemonte, said it’s not only the proposals themselves, but how they are actually implemented, that raise concern. She hopes to stop Marrone’s fund by challenging how it will be regulated as it passes through the regional government, which Marrone is yet to announce. “If I was deciding to have a baby, I would contact the state to see what tools are available to me,” Disabato said. “Not for before birth but for after birth, kindergarten, support from state institutions. An anti-abortion association can’t guarantee me any of this.”
Abortion rights are one of several touchstone issues that the far right are attempting to centre in public discourse. Marrone is most active on Facebook, where he has spent the summer mocking local climate action and challenging what he calls “gender ideology”. Marrone also called for cuts for courses against homophobic and racist discrimination for public administration staff back in November. Anti-abortion groups don’t restrict themselves to a single issue either; Pro Vita & Famiglia, one of Italy’s most active organisations, currently has three big “stop” signs on its home page over a cannabis leaf, a euthanasia injection and a rainbow flag.
Tom Southern, director of special projects at the Centre for Information Resilience, said that many of Italy’s far right organisations are part of international, “pro-family” movements across Europe and the United States. “As with most countries in Europe, many of the so-called ‘pro-family’ networks have either been set up or infiltrated by the far right in Italy,” he said.
Southern said these international movements include Russia, “whose dream of a West at war with itself on every social and political issue is only enhanced by the coming together of the far-right and anti-abortion movements in countries at the heart of Europe such as Italy.
“The likes of the League and Brothers of Italy, as both far-right and ‘anti-gender’ political parties, are exactly the kinds of bedfellows Putin likes to curate to further his geopolitical interests,” he added.