Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian paeditrician who refused a
hysterectomy for cancer in order to save her fourth child.
Last week the Italian media was roiled by a fierce debate over abortion rights. The European Committee of Social Rights, an official commission of the European Union, has formally reprimanded Italy for not applying with sufficient thoroughness its own law on abortion.
Indeed, while everyone knows Act 194 of 1978 as “the abortion bill”, its actual title and many of its contents focus on motherhood and its protection, and this is possibly the real issue behind the ECSR criticisms.
It is necessary to point out that the committee’s pronouncement has no binding force; indeed, it went virtually unnoticed for some weeks. It was prompted by a complaint by CGIL, the left-wing workers’ union, which ‑ some three years ago ‑ claimed that abortion is not easily accessed by Italian women. The responsibility for this, they say, lies with the increasing number of doctors who refuse to perform abortions on conscientious grounds ‑ a right they have by law. The union also claimed that this puts an excessive workload on the shoulders of physicians who do practise abortion.
The committee’s finger-wagging, however, is based on data that is three years old. Its credibility is further undermined by its unnecessary and preposterous remark that Italian women might be forced by this situation to seek easier abortions abroad or to resort to clandestine clinics, when there is no evidence for this.
While the general secretary of CGIL, Susanna Camusso, greeted the ECSR’s reprimand as an “important verdict” (as if the committee were a court), the Minister for Health, Beatrice Lorenzin, said she was puzzled by its outdated sources and the picture it portrayed, which seems to be very different from reality.
But what is the actual situation, and what does the law really say?
While the 1978 Act encountered harsh opposition from the pro-life movement (and understandably so, since it introduced legal abortions in Italy), its text is actually much better than its application. The first 14 chapters of the Act point out the importance of motherhood for women and for society as a whole, encouraging the nation to remove obstacles which discourage procreation.
Moreover, the law clearly affirms that abortion should never become a kind of “emergency contraceptive”, and that it can never be allowed after the 12th week of pregnancy, except if the mother’s life is threatened. Furthermore, counselling services should aim at helping women to continue their pregnancies, suggesting ways in which difficulties can be overcome or solved.
In reality, it has become common practice to justify the termination of unwanted pregnancies by pleading the alleged psychological risks their continuation would impose on the mothers. At the same time the compulsory counselling which should precede (and possibly avoid) abortion has become a mere formality.
Second trimester and even later abortions are commonly performed when the foetus is diagnosed with a malformation, even when the mother’s health is under no discernible threat; and there is no evidence that the criminal prosecutions which should follow such unlawful abortions have ever taken place.
As these few lines show, if there are issues with the application of the 1978 Act, they seem to lie with its effort to protect unborn lives — though often ignored — and not in the “unlawful” practical difficulties it allegedly poses for women seeking abortions.
When we proceed to the actual data which the European Union found so disquieting, they seem hardly to justify such zeal. On average, doctors who are not conscientious objectors perform some 1.6 abortions per week, with a maximum of 4.7 in the small region of Molise (where, however, the access to many other health services is rather difficult) and a minimum of 0.5 in Sardinia. It should be pointed out that neither individual health professionals nor clinics or hospitals are required by law to have abortion facilities or perform interruptions of pregnancy.
In 2014, some 70 percent of the gynecologists, some 50 percent of the anesthesiologists and 46.5 percent of other health professionals refused to perform abortions. While the figures are high (and increasing), they do not imply any unbearable workloads for their colleagues, nor any significant increase in percentage. Indeed, shortly after the 1978 bill was enacted (1983) there were 233,976 recorded abortions in Italy, with some 1607 health professionals performing them; thirty years later (2013), the annual abortions had decreased to 102,760, roughly half of the preceding figure, while the number of doctors who did not object decreased just slightly (1490).
It is ironic that the workers’ union prompted the EU to defend health professionals against the fatigue of less than two abortions per week, at a time when more and more Italian women and families find it difficult to welcome new lives due to the uncertainties and exploitations of today’s job market.
The biggest issue facing the country is its ever-declining demographic ratio, which ultimately threatens its welfare and retirement plans. Instead of conducting a witch hunt against conscientious objectors, the workers’ union and the EU should be urging the ageing peninsula to defend itself against other risks than those posed by the unborn.
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.