50.50: Opinion

What’s at stake for women in Italy’s political crisis

Matteo Salvini says the ‘Italy of the future’ must restrict abortions – but they are already hard to access. We can’t let him make it worse.

Claudia Torrisi
26 January 2021, 9.54am
Italian right-wing including Giorgia Meloni (centre) and Matteo Salvini (right) at a demonstration in Rome. June 2020.
Photo: Massimo Di Vita/Mondadori Portfolio/Sipa USA.

Italy has been plunged into yet another crisis – on top of the pandemic and economic recession, we're facing political chaos. Our daily news bulletins now switch between counting COVID-19 deaths and counting votes against the government.

The turmoil began a few weeks ago, when the former prime minister and centrist, Senator Matteo Renzi, pulled his small Italia Viva party out of the governing coalition. Though the coalition government, led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, won subsequent votes of confidence in parliament, he won this vote in the senate narrowly, 156 to 140.

After wobbling and trying to hang on, today Conte is expected to resign. Afterwards, he can try to form a new coalition. Against him are right-wing and far-right parties including Lega, led by Senator Matteo Salvini, and Fratelli d’Italia, led by MP Giorgia Meloni, which are pushing for a general election, which they seem sure they would win. 

Polls seem to back them up too – Salvini’s party is the most popular in the country right now, with 23%. This is not enough for Lega to govern without partners, but it could be enough if they formed a coalition with other far-right parties and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. And this would be very bad news for women and minorities, who are in the far-right’s crosshairs. 

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We have first-hand, fresh memories of this threat. We recently lived through their assaults after 2018 when the Lega party formed part of the ruling coalition. In 2019, among other things, Lega leaders tried to make it harder for people to divorce. They also openly supported the 2019 World Congress of Families (WCF) in Verona – an annual summit for US, Russian and other ultra-conservative activists, and their far-right political allies.

Salvini had been Interior Minister in the coalition after 2018, until mid-2019 when he lost a gamble for his party to gain more power, and lost his government post as a result. As part of his latest power-grab amidst the current political crisis, during his speech ahead of one of the recent confidence votes he proclaimed that Lega stood “for the defence of life, always”. 

This may sound vague, but what he meant was quite specific – and frightening if you care about women’s reproductive rights. “Italy of the future,” Salvini explained in his speech, should be based on Lega’s model which he described as “Centri di Aiuto alla Vita [‘Centres for Life Support’ or CAVs], and not abortion pills given on the street to anyone.”

The centres that Salvini referenced are run by anti-abortion activists and try to stop women from ending pregnancies under any circumstances. Abortion has been legal in Italy for almost 50 years and these centres are part of a backlash that has existed since then.

These centres are also connected to a global backlash against abortion rights. The anti-abortion federation that runs them, Movimento per la Vita (‘Movement for Life’), is a key international partner of a large US Christian right group called Heartbeat International.

Last year, an openDemocracy 18-country investigation revealed how such centres around the world deploy misinformation and misleading or manipulative claims. In Italy, openDemocracy found that CAVs outnumber facilities that provide abortion – and that dozens of these centres are actually located inside public hospitals and women’s shelters.

Salvini’s suggestion that ‘abortion pills’ are “given to anyone on the streets” is also incorrect and an example of anti-choice propaganda. It’s not clear – perhaps intentionally – whether he was referring to medical abortions or emergency contraception. In either case, it’s false. 

If he meant emergency contraception, perhaps he was referring to the fact that in October 2020 the Italian Pharmaceutical Agency announced that girls under the age of 18 would join older women in being able to buy emergency contraception without doctors’ prescriptions. But these aren’t ‘abortion pills’ – they prevent pregnancy from taking place. 

Or, if Salvini was referring to medical abortion pills, he must know that these are not easy to access in Italy at all – and that it’s gotten even harder amidst COVID-19. Medical terminations using pills were almost impossible for women to access during the first lockdown in March 2020, and even now many hospitals only provide surgical abortions. 

Though the Ministry of Health relaxed rules in August 2020, enabling medical abortions to be provided by counselling centres as well as by hospitals, very few regions have actually adopted these new provisions. The consequence, recent testimonies show, is that accessing medical abortion is still very difficult for many women in Italy. 

Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups connected to the World Congress of Families network, such as ProVita e Famiglia, are campaigning against these pills, which they call “poison”.

With anti-abortion centres already outnumbering abortion providers, and enduring obstacles to accessing legal medical terminations, Italians are in many ways already living in the “Italy of the future” that Salvini dreams of. We can’t allow him to make it any worse.

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