With the aid of a couple of priests and security guards willing to look the other way, Dr Antonio Oriente of Messina (Sicily) placed his former instruments of death at the feet of Pope Francis during a recent meeting of gynecologists at the Vatican.
Dr Oriente had repented of his work as an abortionist back in 1986 but kept his tools of the trade as a reminder of the evil that he had done. Now he asked for the forgiveness and prayers from the Holy Father himself. Today the repentant doctor operates two clinics, holds seminars and conferences, tells his story to newspapers and magazines, and opposes the culture of death which he described as “semantic manipulation that has turned a crime (“delitto” in Italian) into a right (“diritto”).”
Dr Oriente may be an Italian version of the late Dr Bernard Nathanson, an earlier repentant abortionist in the United States who claimed to personally having terminated over 5,000 nascent lives and presided over the destruction of another 60,000 before his well-known conversion. But Dr Oriente is not alone. More and more doctors in Italy are conscientious objectors.
Each year the annual report on abortion of the Ministry of Health to the Italian Parliament reads like a broken record: fewer doctors and other medical personnel are willing to perform abortions while the number of abortions in Italy continues to trend downwards. The 2013 annual report was no exception.
Final data for 2011 show that 69 percent of doctors in Italy refuse to perform abortions compared with 59 percent in 1983. In one-third of all Italian regions 80 percent or more of gynecologists are conscientious objectors including Lazio, the region that includes Rome. The number of abortion compliant gynecologists in all of Italy (population 61 million) has declined from 1,913 in 2001 to 1,507 in 2011.
In Lombardy, Italy’s most prosperous region, the leftist Vice President of the Regional Council recently presented a medical report that indicated that in one of six hospitals all doctors refuse to perform abortions. In most of the others, the majority of doctors are abortion objectors and the same holds true for other medical personnel. Fearing that the availability of abortion may have a dim future, the leftist regional officials are anxiously looking for willing medical personnel.
As the number of doctors who are conscientious objectors grows, the number of abortions continues to decline. Abortion was introduced in Italy in 1978 via Law 194/78, the same legislation mandating an annual report to Parliament by the Minister of Health. As in any country when abortion is introduced the number skyrockets so that by 1982 abortions peaked at 234,801. Since then abortion numbers have declined every year, except for minor upticks in 1997 and 2005. Preliminary data for 2012 show that abortions in Italy numbered nearly 106,000, registered a 4.9 percent decline from the previous year and a 55 percent decline from the peak.
The total abortion tally would be even lower except for the high percentage of foreign women, nearly 34 percent in 2011, who are counted in the Italian abortion statistics. Most live in Italy but some reside elsewhere. The percentage of foreign women, most of whom are from Eastern European countries which have some of the highest abortion rates in the world according to the World Health Organization, seems to have stabilized and accounted for about one-third of all abortions in the past few years.
Considering that there were few foreign women undergoing abortions in the peak year 1982, the decline in abortions by Italian women alone actually dropped 69 percent by 2011. The abortion rate for all Italian women was 6.6 per 1,000 (2009 data) whereas for foreign women it was 24.1 per 1,000, indicating foreigners skew upwards the overall abortion rate for Italy.
For both Italian and foreign women, the main reasons given for resorting to abortion were already having the desired number of children – even though 60 percent of women had only one child – and economic problems. However, many foreign women also indicated they experienced failure with birth control methods, perhaps due to incorrect use.
Italian abortion rates have declined across the board for all age groups, from under 20 to 45-49. In the first decade of legalization, mostly married women underwent abortion. By 2011 the unmarried or formerly married exceeded currently married women by 57 percent to 43 percent. Interestingly, in the United States the latest data (2008) showed much greater disparity, with married women accounting for only 15 percent of all abortions.
Today Italy has one of the lowest abortion rates among developed countries, especially when compared with the United States. An international comparison of abortion rates per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44, for the period 2008-2011 showed Italy as having the fifth lowest rate among 20 countries at 9.4 per 1,000. By comparison the United States ranked fifth highest with 19.6 per 1,000. Switzerland had the lowest rate, 6.8 and Russia the highest at 40.3.
A comparison of abortion rates by age groups shows another considerable contrast with the United States. Sadly, the teen abortion rate in the United States is more than three times that of Italy. The same disparity can be observed in the 20-24 age bracket. Rates are roughly comparable only among groups of older women.
Abortion rates per 1,000 women by age brackets
Data are for 2011 for Italy and 2010 for the United States. Source: Italian Ministry of Health’s Annual Report to Parliament for 2013.
Low abortion rates raises the question of contraceptive prevalence, which is defined by the United Nations as “the percentage of women aged 15-49 in union currently using any contraceptive method.” All manner of contraceptives are legal and readily available in Italy. Even the RU-486 abortion pill has been legalized. However, according to the WHO, there are no contraception prevalence data for most European Union countries, including Italy. Only five EU countries reported data (averages for 2005-2012): Portugal (87), the United Kingdom (84), France (77), the Netherlands (69) and Spain (66). A median estimate based on a UN Population Division model puts the rate for Italy at 65.
Further confirmation of the mainly affirmative view of life by Italians can be seen in the just concluded European Union citizens’ campaign petition of the “One of us” movement. This petition, to enable a legislative proposal in defense of human life from the very beginning, obtained the most signatures from Italians. Although one million names from at least seven countries were required, the movement collected 1.9 million signatures from 20 countries of which approximately 600,000 from Italy – a nation that, from doctors to ordinary citizens, has eschewed abortion.
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.