50.50: Analysis

How Italian activists are fighting for abortion rights

Italians have marched for abortion rights since the far-Right election win, but their real fight began long before

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Claudia Torrisi
10 October 2022, 10.40am
Hands off my uterus: International Safe Abortion Day protest in Rome on 28 September
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Vincenzo Nuzzolese/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire

“We drove for almost 150 kilometres just so she could have an abortion,” said Marte Manca, an activist from a local branch of the transfeminist group Non Una di Meno, based in Marche, a region in east-central Italy.

Last week, the group received a message from a woman living near Ancona, the region’s main city. She had tried to have an abortion in her local hospital, but the doctors had told her the wait would be 20 days.

“She was afraid she would have been out of time by then,” Manca explained. “There weren’t enough gynaecologists available to perform abortions in that hospital. In fact there’s only one, the others are conscientious objectors.”

By law, abortion is universally available in Italy up to 90 days from conception, including a waiting period of a week. However, doctors are allowed to refuse to perform abortions – and in Marche, 70% of gynaecologists refuse to do so.

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Group members drove the woman to Ascoli, another city in the region, where the non-profit family counselling clinic AIED sends doctors once a week to perform abortions in the local hospital.

Non Una di Meno Marche started this service during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the health emergency made access to abortion more difficult. After receiving a pregnant person’s request for help, members of the group phone around the hospitals to find where the procedure is available, take the woman there, and wait outside.

“We have been accompanying women to hospitals for nearly three years now,” said Manca, explaining that the group had been active and campaigning for abortion rights since 2018. At that time, he added, the local government was centre Left and the percentage of conscientious objectors was “lower than today, but still high. And we were there”.

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Since September 2020 Marche has been governed by the Brothers of Italy, the far-Right party led by Giorgia Meloni, which won the majority of the votes at the general election two weeks ago.

In the past months, many have urged their fellow Italians to look at regions governed by local right-wing administrations to see what might be in store for abortion rights nationally under a Meloni government. In Marche, the local authorities decided in 2021 not to apply a Health Ministry measure that increases access to medical abortion, and have proposed allowing anti-abortion activists to work in health service-funded family counselling clinics, which give advice on abortion.

While Meloni has repeatedly stated that she would not abolish Law 194, which protects abortion access, she has also said she intends to “fully enforce” it, by supporting women to have “an alternative to abortion”.

Her words were not reassuring to feminists: they know Law 194 is not enough to protect their rights. While it ensures that women can terminate a pregnancy, it also has a stated aim to “protect human life from its inception”, which could provide an opening for new anti-abortion policies.

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Women took to the streets in around 50 Italian cities on 28 September

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Claudia Torrisi

Three days after the election, on 28 September, International Safe Abortion Day, thousands of feminists joined marches in around 50 Italian cities. Their slogan was: “We are furious.”

It was the country’s first political demonstration since the far-Right’s election victory.

“We know the result of the election and we are scared. But there’s something that hasn’t changed, and it’s our rage. We know very well where we have to be: we have to resist; we have to keep fighting,” one activist from the Non Una di Meno movement shouted during the protest in Rome.

Non Una di Meno is not the only group fighting to guarantee the right to abortion promised by Law 194. Feminist groups throughout Italy have been working to do so, and to counter anti-choice groups, for years. Every day, they offer pregnant people information, and psychological and physical support.

There is a sort of list of abortions that are OK, and others that are not. Mine is not OK, because I say I’m happy I had it

The network Obiezione Respinta (Italian for ‘Objection Rejected’) was founded in 2017 by a group of university students in Pisa, Tuscany, with the aim of monitoring abortion services. During the COVID-19 lockdowns – when some hospitals suspended abortion services – the students created a Telegram channel to share information on what services were still available and where. In the past two to three years, the group has become a haven for people seeking information.

“When a woman writes to us because she wants to have an abortion but is finding difficulties, we direct her to other feminist groups in her area which can support her and help her overcome the obstacles she faces,” Eleonora, an Obiezione Respinta activist, explained. “We rely on local branches of Non Una di Meno or other groups or activists across Italy.”

One of these groups is IVG Ho abortito e sto benissimo (‘I had an abortion and I feel great’), a platform founded by psychologist Federica Di Martino and others in 2018. It provides information and support to those looking for an abortion, and collects stories and testimonies, aiming to change the predominant narrative on abortion: that it’s acceptable only if it was a necessary but tragic choice.

“There is a sort of list of abortions that are OK, and others that are not. Mine is not OK, because I say I’m happy I had an abortion,” said Alice Merlo, a 28-year-old activist from Genoa.

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Protesting the influence of the Catholic Church on International Safe Abortion Day

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Claudia Torrisi

Merlo’s face appeared on posters for a campaign by the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics promoting medical abortion, which uses pills. She received insults and threats from anti-abortion groups as a result, but has remained committed to sharing accurate information on abortion and reproductive rights.

Merlo decided to act in December 2020, when posters promoted by an anti-choice group, calling abortion pills “poison”, appeared in various cities across Italy, including Genoa.

The anti-abortion campaign also reached Palermo, on the island of Sicily, where a group of journalists and others decided to react with an information campaign called “Non è un veleno” (‘It is not poison’). The campaigners said they realised it was difficult to find this kind of information where it should be found. “Also, there’s always shame around talking about abortion,” one of them explained.

The group underlined the importance of the network of feminists groups born in recent years, and the fact that they work by “sticking together while doing different things”.

“The fight clearly didn’t start today. For those who believe it did: well, ‘good morning!’” Merlo said. But what has changed, she added, “is that now we have to play defence. We need to find new ways of supporting abortion access, because Law 194 won’t be abolished but there will probably be other disgusting actions [from the far-Right government], such as forcing women to hear the foetal heartbeat before abortion, or other things.”

Eleonora from Obiezione Respinta added: “We are scared because the attack on our bodies has never been so clear as it is today. But we keep working. We’re lucky that we have been fighting for years, so we have a solid foundation.”

As Marte Manca from Non Una di Meno Marche put it: “The first protection for abortion rights are feminist networks: we never lower our guard.”

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