Ohen 20-year-old Giulia found out she was pregnant, she immediately decided she wasn’t ready to have a baby. Supported by her boyfriend and family, she consulted a doctor in her hometown in Italy’s central Marche region about how to get an abortion. She faced obstacles at every turn, from unanswered phones and closed doctor’s offices, to a doctor who tried to persuade her to change her mind.
Abortion in Italy was legalized by referendum in 1978, reversing an outright ban imposed by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who considered it a crime against the Italian race, but the high number of gynecologists who refuse to interrupt a pregnancy for moral reasons – 64.6%, according to 2020 data – means women still face huge challenges in accessing safe procedures.
The conservative leadership in several Italian regions has in recent years further hindered access to abortion, particularly in the Marches, a former bastion of the left, which since September 2020 has been led by the Brothers of Italy – a party with roots neo-fascists which, after national elections in September, could be the largest party in a right-wing government coalition.
Giorgia Meloni, the party leader who hopes to become prime minister, described abortion as a “defeat”, although she recently said scrapping the 1978 law was not on her agenda.
However, Marche, described as a “laboratory” for the politics of the Brothers of Italy, gives a glimpse of what could happen if the coalition led by the party and including Matteo Salvini’s far-right League, which is also against abortion, takes power.
One of the regional council’s first moves was not to enforce a Health Ministry measure introduced last year allowing health clinics, not just hospitals, to provide the abortion pill. While national policy states that medical abortions can be performed up to nine weeks of pregnancy, in Marche the limit is seven weeks. By law, after a woman receives a medical certificate authorizing her abortion, she must think for a week before the procedure is performed.
“Sometimes a woman doesn’t find out she’s pregnant until the fifth or sixth week,” said Manuela Bora, a regional politician from the centre-left Democratic Party. “It’s almost impossible to get an abortion here. Yes, we cannot deny that it was difficult before, but it was due to the moral objectors; now the erosion of abortion rights is a political issue.
Giulia, the 20-year-old seeking an abortion, finally went online and found details of a non-profit family counseling clinic in Ascoli Piceno, nearly two hours drive from her home, that offers abortion services.
The clinic prepares women for medical or surgical abortions, the latter performed each Saturday at the local hospital by two non-objecting gynecologists hired from outside the Marche region, who often face the wrath of anti-abortion protesters outside .
The service was contracted out to AIED – a nonprofit family counseling clinic in Ascoli Piceno that provides abortion services – a decade ago because abortion procedures could no longer be guaranteed by the hospital because of the high number of moral objectors among its staff.
The very morning of Giulia’s consultation, Tiziana Antonucci, vice president of AIED, returns calls from six other women who tell similar stories of their struggles to access abortion services through the public system. Termination of pregnancy by AIED costs €200, money which is used to finance the service, compared to €1,500 in a private clinic.
“There are hospitals where there are only naysayers, and one hospital – in Fermo – has never even enforced the abortion law,” Antonucci said. “But even in hospitals where there are no objectors, the service is insufficient. When the left was in power, they did nothing to change it because they feared losing the Catholic vote. Now we have the right and remain stuck in this increasingly difficult situation.
The Brethren-led council in Italy has further proposed allowing anti-abortion activists, who already infiltrate hospitals to pressure women not to terminate their pregnancies, to work in clinics. family counseling. “Imagine a woman going to a clinic to get an abortion and finding bigoted people,” Bora said.
Bora herself is all too familiar with the tactics of anti-abortion activists. After clashing with Marches equal opportunities adviser Giorgia Latini over abortion, she received 1,450 nappies – representing the number of abortions in Marches in 2019 – from a doctor, who delivered sending her to council offices while her son held up a sign saying she had blood on her hands.
A priority policy for the Brothers of Italy and the League is to reverse the declining birth rate in Italy. One way to achieve this, they say, is to reduce abortions by offering financial incentives to encourage women to carry a pregnancy.
“In 2020, when I was elected, there were 2,000 abortions in the region,” said Filippo Saltamartini, Marche health adviser. “Can you imagine a square filled with that many children and their mothers? Mothers we had helped provide these children with a home and financial support in their early years. This is the kind of world we have to imagine.
For some, this fantasy world would ideally be a pure-blooded Italian. “The Italian population is shrinking. I’m not saying that foreigners shouldn’t have children, but we have to create the conditions for Italians to reproduce,” said Carlo Ciccioli, the leader of the Brothers of Italy group in the Marches council, which has described abortion as “an absolute rearguard battle” and last year sparked controversy after speaking of “ethnic substitution” of Italian children in schools.
Ciccioli, a doctor, was a member of the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the neo-fascist party created by a minister in Mussolini’s government that transformed into a National Alliance before becoming Brothers of Italy. In 1974, he shot a political opponent in the leg on a street in Ancona, the capital of the Marches.
In other policy changes, the party cut the region’s sponsorship of Marches gay pride, while the chair of the council’s equal opportunities commission suggested creating conditions for women to work part-time so they can spend more time cooking.
A strong sign of a political pivot in the region came on October 28, 2019, when a memorial dinner was held in Ascoli Piceno to mark the anniversary of Mussolini’s ‘march on Rome’. The dinner was attended by Francesco Acquaroli, now president of the Marches, and a host of other Brethren mayors from Italy.
“The March is a laboratory for the Brothers of Italy,” said Paolo Berizzi, a journalist at La Repubblica who has written extensively on the far right in Italy. “This is where the party has been doing general testing as it prepares for what it could do nationally. In two months, Italy could be governed by a party that has never really severed ties with its fascist history.
Additional reporting by Pamela Duncan