Although Legal, Abortion Remains a Major Challenge for Women in Italy

Despite what the law says, women still struggle to access abortion in Italy because of objecting doctors and the Catholic Church, which continues to wage an anti-abortion campaign based on fearmongering and disinformation.

Italian law authorizes abortion until the 90th day of pregnancy, but over 70 percent of doctors practicing obstetrics and gynecology object to performing abortions on moral grounds, as the law allows them to do so through "conscientious objection."

Nowhere to turn for help

The problem is that in some rural regions in the country, the rate of objecting doctors can reach 90 percent in public hospitals. In Sicily, for example, 89.1 percent of doctors object, and this figure reaches 89.7 percent in Molise.

The impact of those hindrances are huge: women's associations and the press often denounce and report stories of women struggling to exercise their legal right to abort.

Last year, a woman visited 23 public hospitals in Veneto (in the northeast of Italy) before finding a doctor who agreed to perform her abortion, and another woman was left to abort alone in a hospital's bathroom because the shift of the only non-objector doctor had ended, and the objecting doctor on duty refused to care for her.

This dire situation has raised many concerns, most recently from the UN Human Rights Committee.

Catholic lobbying and disinformation

As to today, 15 percent of the Italian public believes that abortion shouldn’t be legal, or only in cases where the mother's life is at risk. These opinions are often rooted in religious beliefs, and the Catholic Church is still actively working to prevent the hiring of non-objector doctors.

Indeed, looking through the web you can find numerous websites that, under the cover of providing information on abortion and its practice, are giving fake information and providing "shock" videos (such as “The silent scream,” an American movie produced in 1984 with the support of the NARAL Pro-Choice America group).

By playing on people’s emotions and relaying fake and manipulated information and data, these activists websites try to influence women’s desire to abort.

While some countries, such as France, have made it illegal to interfere with abortions or undertake fake information propaganda campaigns, no such law exists in Italy, and it is hard to find actual scientific and objective information on abortion.

Risky, illegal abortions

One of the most concerning issues raised by this inability of women to exercise their right to abort, technically protected by the law, is the increasing number of illegal abortions. Indeed, as demonstrated in numerous other regions worldwide, it is not because they cannot legally and safely abort that women are persuaded to carry on unwanted pregnancies.

According to the World Health Organization, 49 percent of abortion practices in the world are performed illegally in 2008, a figured that was drastically higher than in 1995, when it was "only" 44 percent.

The problem is that illegal abortions are practiced with medieval and dangerous methods. Instructions for DIY (do it yourself) abortions are flourishing online, often echoing local cultures. They promote various "recipes," such as herbal concoctions or weird cocktails made of Coca-Cola, lemon juice and baking soda.

These are methods that are evidently highly hazardous and put women's health at risk: worldwide, a woman dies every 9 minutes from an illegal abortion (that is, 47.000 deaths that could be avoided every year).

'A battle between church and state'

In Italy, estimations talk about 12.000 to 15.000 illegal abortions per year. This is due and is only the result of conscientious objections, leaving non-objecting doctors in a small minority.

This is why the president of the Lazio region, where women struggle to access abortion, has put forward a call to hire two non-objector doctors to meet the demand. This demonstrates the desire from a public official to guarantee women's access to abortion – to guarantee that women can exercise a right that is theirs – but the Catholic Church has firmly condemned it, saying it amounted to "murder."

"In Italy, the influence of the Vatican is very strong," said Elisabetta Canitano, a member of Laiga and the head of the women's health campaign group Vita di Donna (Woman's Life). "The Church has always been interested in health and education. This is a battle of wills between Church and state, and the Church is winning."

How long before things change and women's right to self-determination and health gets protected in practice as much as in theory?