Playing politics with abortion

Dominic Standish reports from Italy on how politicians are jumping on an anti-abortion bandwagon in the run to April’s elections.

Dominic Standish

Topics Politics

Abortion has leapt to the centre of electoral debate in Italy. Politicians are feverishly discussing it and demonstrations related to abortion have been held in several Italian cities. Ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the new centre-right People of Freedom alliance, has catapulted the abortion issue into the campaign for the General Election, due to be held on 13-14 April. Traditionally, the abortion issue does not feature in Italian elections. But on Monday 11 February, Berlusconi called for a United Nations moratorium on pregnancy terminations similar to its recent non-binding resolution on the death penalty. ‘I think that recognising the right to life from conception to natural death is a principle that the UN could make its own, just as it did with the moratorium on the death penalty’, Berlusconi told the weekly magazine Tempi.

The seizing of the abortion issue by Berlusconi follows several months of heated discussion of the issue. In mid-December, the prominent conservative journalist and editor of Il Foglio, Giuliano Ferrara, reopened the debate on abortion by proposing a universal moratorium. He, too, argued that if the UN could approve a moratorium on executions, it should also approve one on abortions, because millions of ‘innocents’ are killed each year in the ‘supreme scandal of our time’. Following the announcement of a General Election, Ferrara set up a single-issue anti-abortion electoral platform.

Ferrara’s initiative has received backing from senior Catholic Church officials, including Camillo Ruini, the Pope’s Cardinal for Rome. Although the Catholic Church is not formally supposed to intervene in Italian politics, in practice priests give clear indications about how their congregations should vote on the Sunday morning before they head to the polling booths. Ruini has held back from calling for a revolt against existing abortion legislation in Italy, but made it clear how voters should exercise their consciences at the elections during a recent interview on the Italian TV network La7. ‘The Church in Italy is not calling for a revolt against the law 194 [which legalised abortion in Italy], but it cannot be denied that this is an intrinsically evil norm, which authorises the death of a human being’, he said.

Abortion in state hospitals until the end of the third month of pregnancy was legalised in Italy in 1978. Abortion after three months is only permitted if the pregnancy is considered to be a grave danger to the woman’s life or if the fetus is deformed. Ruini suggested that Italian politicians should read the 194 abortion law ‘in a comprehensive way’ to support pregnant women and avoid abortions rather than repeal the law.

But Senator Maria Burani Procaccini, Berlusconi’s spokesperson on family issues, says that if the centre-right wins the election a bill for new abortion legislation will be presented. ‘The new law will allow abortion only in really justified cases and within the time-frame already envisaged’, said Burani Procaccini. This proposal to go further even than the Catholic Church in curtailing abortion indicates that Berlusconi is making an overzealous attempt to seize the abortion issue as an electoral ‘shock’ tactic.

Indeed, Berlusconi’s stance on abortion appears to be guided by electoral opportunism more than political or moral principles. Ferrara stated that he will not join Berlusconi’s coalition for the election because he does not think Berlusconi is sufficiently enthusiastic about reducing the number of abortions. ‘I will run alone; Berlusconi doesn’t believe in this fight enough’, said Ferrara (1).

Berlusconi appears to be jumping on the bandwagon of the abortion issue in order to provide his election campaign with some dynamism. Although Berlusconi is leading most current election polls, there is a palpable lack of enthusiasm for returning him to lead a government for the third time. After Berlusconi launched his new Forza Italia (Let’s Go Italy) party in 1993, Italians elected him in 1994 in the hope that he would breathe new life into a political system riddled with corruption and decay. But following two lacklustre Berlusconi-led administrations, and his eleven trials for corruption, Berlusconi’s launching of the new People of Freedom grouping has been met with widespread scepticism. Berlusconi has piggybacked on the abortion issue in an attempt to connect with the Italian electorate. However, this could backfire as polls indicate that Italians strongly favour keeping the 1978 abortion law.

The absence of moral or political principles behind Berlusconi’s backing for a moratorium on abortion is demonstrated by the lack of conviction in his statements about abortion. Instead of insisting that politicians in his party oppose abortion, Berlusconi said they should be able to follow their own consciences on the issue (2). In addition, Stefania Prestigiacomo, the former Forza Italia minister for equal opportunities in Berlusconi’s 2005-2006 cabinet, commented on 13 February that there will be no change to the abortion law if Berlusconi is elected (3), contradicting the previous statement by Burani Procaccini. In fact, we should also consider why Berlusconi did not change the abortion law during his previous administrations if it is a matter of principle for him. He cannot even claim this was due to the difficulties of gaining political support. His last government enjoyed a huge majority by Italian standards. It was the longest-lasting administration in Italy since the Second World War and the only postwar government to have served a full five-year term.

Despite the weaknesses in Berlusconi’s track record on abortion, his principal opponents have not responded to his initiative with a political campaign. The newly launched Democratic Party (DP) has backed off from launching a united political front against Berlusconi or Ferrara on the question of abortion. Only the smaller Radical Party and Refounded Communists are robustly campaigning to defend the abortion law. In contrast, former family minister, Rosy Bindi, a prominent DP member, has argued that the abortion issue should not be part of the election campaign at all (4). The DP treats abortion as a depoliticised matter of individual conscience.

Indeed, the DP’s election campaign is modelled on the highly depoliticised campaign by American Senator Barack Obama (5). The new Democratic Party in Italy has adopted the same name as Obama’s party. The DP’s leader Veltroni was chosen at a newly instigated party ‘primary’ last October. Earlier this month, Veltroni ended his news conference to launch his election campaign by repeating Obama’s catchphrase ‘Yes we can’ in English. On Sunday 17 February, Veltroni borrowed from the US election repertoire to set off on a marathon election bus campaign around Italy’s 110 provinces. However, as the former Mayor of Rome and deputy prime minister in 1996, Veltroni is likely to find it difficult to promote himself as a fresh face for Italian politics.

Yet the DP’s depoliticised strategy of seeking a quick fix ‘Obama factor’ to get elected, instead of promoting a political programme that might include defending abortion, could have profound consequences for Italian women. Indeed, there is already evidence that abortion access is being limited. In January, Italy’s Lombardy region restricted abortion in cases where the gestational age of the fetus is over 22 weeks and three days. Lombardy’s governor, Roberto Formigoni claimed this change is within the existing abortion law. Over the past two decades, the number of Italian women having abortions has declined and there have been many cases of women claiming that access to the operation has been difficult. In 2006, 130,000 women had abortions in Italy, down from 234,801 in 1982. In addition, the Medically Assisted Reproduction Law passed in March 2004 provided encouragement to politicians and clergy seeking better protection for embryos, as I reported on spiked (6).

The potential criminalisation of Italian women undergoing abortions is equally worrying. On Monday 11 February, police officers raided a hospital in Naples following an anonymous phone call allegedly claiming that an ‘infanticide’ was underway (7). The police even took away the fetus to check it was not aborted after the legal time period. The woman, known only by her first name ‘Silvana’, initially wanted to give birth. But she decided to have an abortion after discovering that the fetus was afflicted by Klinefelter Syndrome, which can lead to severe mental handicap; she felt it would have been a struggle to bring up a seriously disabled child as a single mother. The abortion was carried out after 21 weeks, well within the existing legal time limit of 24 weeks. Nevertheless, the woman was met by a police officer for questioning after she left the operating theatre, reportedly while still under the effects of anaesthesia. Following police investigations, no prosecution is being sought in relation to Silvana’s case. But that did not stop Ferrara from passing judgement: ‘A baby was killed because it had an illness. I call that eugenics.’

This Naples incident and the debate about abortion led to a thousand pro-choice demonstrators gathering in Bologna, and hundreds in Rome, Milan and Naples, on 14 February. The leading liberal Italian newspaper La Repubblica compared these demonstrations to the 1970s women’s movement that helped to introduce the 194 abortion law. Many protesters stressed how important it is for a woman to have personal control over her body. ‘We are here to say that decisions concerning a woman’s body must remain in her hands always’, stated women from the Italian women’s association, UDI, as they marched in Rome. Others expressed their personal sympathy with the treatment of the woman in Naples. ‘Silvana, we’re all with you’, said placards on the Roman protests.

Italian politicians’ new focus and interpretation of the abortion law is governed by individual morality and depoliticisation. Most leading politicians from the DP and outgoing government kept their distance from the demonstrations. Some showed their support, such as DP health minister Livia Turco, who emerged from her office in a show of solidarity during the protests. In the same way as Berlusconi has criticised abortion in an attempt to boost his electoral chances, politicians from the DP can benefit from supporting abortion rights. But there is no sense of the DP fighting the election with a united political defence of abortion rights and access. Likewise, the contradictory statements on changing the existing abortion legislation from senior figures close to Berlusconi indicate he will not be able to present a political front against abortion. Indeed, Berlusconi’s insistence that members of his own party can follow their own consciences on abortion suggests that is not even seeking political unity on the abortion issue.

Abortion has become a matter for individual posturing by politicians in the run-up to April’s elections, rather than a political issue for party programmes. The absence of politics from the electoral debate about abortion means significant reform of existing abortion legislation is highly unlikely. But the manipulation of the abortion issue by politicians could have serious consequences for women like Silvana.

Dr. Dominic Standish is an adjunct Professor for the University of Kansas (USA) at their CIMBA site in Asolo, Italy. Email:

Dr Dominic Standish is an adjunct professor for the University of Kansas (USA) at their CIMBA site in Asolo, Italy. You can email him {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Jennie Bristow restated the moral case for women’s right to choose. Stuart Derbyshire queried the quality of the debate on abortion offered by Channel 4’s Dispatches. Ellie Lee took a look at the history of the abortion debate and made the case for Early Medical Abortion (EMA). Or read more at spiked issue Abortion.

(1) Abortion figuring into Italy campaign, Associated Press, 12 February 2008

(2) Abortion emerges as election issue, ANSA Italian Press Agency, 12 February 2008

(3) Giuliano avvelena il clima noi non toccheremo la legge, Giovanna Casadio, La Repubblica, 13 February 2008

(4) Abortion emerges as election issue, ANSA Italian Press Agency, 12 February 2008

(5) Getting to grips with Obama-mania, by Sean Collins, 8 Febraury 2008

(6) A law too far, by Dominic Standish, 3 March 2004

(7) Aborto, polizia in ospedale, La Repubblica, 13 February 2008

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Topics Politics


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