Secretary Giorgia Meloni talks during a Fratelli D'italia party electoral meeting tour towards the 25 September vote.

Abortion Rights Under Siege in Italy Post-Dobbs

By Sarah Gabriele

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has had an impact and influence far beyond U.S. borders, with right-wing politicians in Italy campaigning on stricter abortion laws in the recent election of September 25, 2022. And now that the far right has reached the majority in both the Italian Parliament and Senate, access to abortion in Italy could soon face additional restrictions.

In the weeks before the elections, abortion rights were a hot topic, with right-wing politicians riding on the recent wave of anti-abortion victories and promising to create additional restrictions to abortion access. Just to name a few, Eugenia Roccella, an exponent of the right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia, has recently denied that women have the right to have an abortion, while Giorgia Meloni, the head of Fratelli d’Italia and the likely choice for Italy’s next Prime Minister, has called for preventing the practice of abortion. However, this troubling trend is not new, and it is overshadowed by a pernicious reality: though Italy recognizes a constitutional right to abortion, access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care are already severely impinged.

Since the recognition of the right for women to terminate their pregnancies (first through a decision of the Italian Constitutional Court in 1975, and then by passing a law in 1978), a steady effort to limit access has created numerous hurdles that make it almost impossible for many women in Italy to get an abortion today. Thus, notwithstanding the constitutional protections, the current situation in Italy is frightening for the subtle yet effective ways in which access to abortion is being undermined.

The difficulties in accessing abortion in Italy are mainly caused by two factors. First, the same law providing the right to access abortion also provides the option for doctors to “conscientiously object” to performing them. The result is that almost 7 out of 10 doctors refuse to give abortions in Italy.

Second, policies related to accessing abortion are set by regional authorities, who often opt for stricter policies in line with their political orientation. One recent example is the decision of the right-wing regional council of Marche, which opposed and rejected the possibility for hospitals and health care facilities to administer mifepristone (the commonly called “abortion pill”), a progesterone blocker that can end a pregnancy that is less than 10 weeks along. However, Marche is not the only region enacting these policies. Following the general elections, newly elected officials might create similar, if not stricter rules. These policies are often justified behind Catholic ideals, aimed at the “protection” of families and newborns.

Obstacles to accessing reproductive health care in Italy are not just limited to abortion. In 2016, the national healthcare system stopped reimbursing contraceptive pills, leaving women with the sole option to buy them “out of pocket.” Similarly, the “morning after” pill is not reimbursed by the national healthcare system. As Hannah Roberts clearly put it in POLITICO, abortion (and reproductive health, I might add) in Italy is legal but complicated. In effect, abortion is a privilege, not a right, because it is complicated and difficult to access.

To put it simply, a constitutional right to abortion is not enough. Italy’s experience teaches us that even if the right to get an abortion is recognized by the highest court and has been codified for almost 30 years, the fight to access abortion continues with several challenges on multiple different levels. Until the right to access abortion is protected in every step along the way, starting with proper sex education, informed conversations, access to contraceptives, and ultimately, a safe environment for women seeking health care, we must keep advocating for it.  In the failure of Italian politics, where the right-wing is openly attacking abortion and the left wing is only mildly pushing back for fear of losing the support of Catholic exponents, we are left with the necessity of always being on alert and constantly fighting for what should be our “established” (and codified!) right.

sgabriele

Sarah Gabriele is a second-year Master of Bioethics candidate at Harvard Medical School. She obtained her law degree from the University of Trento (Italy) and an LL.M. from the Washington University in St. Louis. After graduating from law school, she worked at Hogan Lovells in their Milan office, specializing in pharmaceutical patent litigation. Currently, she is a student fellow with the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and a research specialist at PORTAL, in the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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