Italy is an ageing country. Last year (2015) saw the lowest number of births ever; for the fifth year in a row, the number of children per woman has decreased, and now stands at 1.35. There are many explanations for this – none entirely convincing, to be sure, but most of them are at least co-responsible for this alarmingly low total fertility rate.

The financial crisis has deeply wounded our economy, but even more our perception of life, our outlook on the future. The generation which should now be deep into the joys and hardships of parenting is still in search of a job, and is feeling frustrated in all of its aspirations. Italian Millennials grew up in a world full of promises, and woke up to see most of them destroyed.

Unemployment rates are worryingly high, and the lucky ones who have a job are frequently under the constant menace of losing it: no wonder that many women fear – often with good reasons – that their employers will sack them as soon as they get pregnant. Of course, this is formally unlawful: but relatively frequently, it happens that young women are blackmailed into signing a blank letter of resignation on their first day at work, so that their employers may fill it at their leisure — for example, when the employee grows visibly pregnant.

There is a dramatic shortage at day-care providers: and although grandmas and grandpas are the true pillars of Italian society, one cannot always rely on them for looking after the babies when mom has to rush back to her job as soon as possible after giving birth. And so on and so forth.

While the publication of the official statistics about demography, in February, hit only a few headlines, the topic abruptly came to the fore last week in a rather unexpected fashion.

The Ministry for Public Health launched a campaign preparing for so-called “Fertility-Day” (in English in the original…) scheduled for September 22nd. Its aim was to inform Italian citizens about responsible procreation and to raise awareness about the importance of not delaying indefinitely the project of parenting. “Apriti cielo!” — For heaven’s sake! — as we say when it’s all too much. The reaction of the media and on social media has been immediate and outraged.

It is true that the campaign was seriously flawed in the style and content of at least some of its choices. There was a picture with a young woman with a hand on her belly and a hourglass in the other, with the slogan: “Beauty has no age. Fertility has”. Another featured a dripping tap, with the slogan: “Fertility is a common good”. The most infelicitous, in my opinion, was a picture with four feet, appearing from under the sheets of a couple’s bed, and with the slogan: “Young parents. The best way to be creative”.

Premier Matteo Renzi disowned this campaign enacted by one of his own ministers, and claimed that Italian couples must be provided with social/economic conditions favourable for having children. Infertile couples and women have voiced their outrage at a campaign which seemed to make them feel guilty. Women who can’t find a job or are underpaid similarly expressed their dissent. Irony and satire are raging.

The Minister about-faced and retired the campaign, though she promised that a new one will be prepared on time for the “Fertility Day”. Hopefully, it will be better inspired: it really is a pity that such an important issue has been treated so clumsily, and that a crucial message for the future of our country has been satirised thanks to a few goofy pictures.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Visit her website. 

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com