Italian demonstrators

ROME (WOMENSENEWS)–In anticipation of Italy’s elections on April 9, Catholic leaders here have signaled their hopes that a swing in political leadership will reinforce opposition to the nation’s laws protecting abortion rights and turn back support for same-sex and civil unions.

Camillo Ruini, Rome’s vicar and head of the Italian bishops’ conference, said on March 20 the church would not side with a political party during the election campaign, but would weigh in on debates over marriage, civil unions and other social issues. The cardinal said the church has a duty to share with voters the “elementary truths that regard our common humanity.”

The abortion issue has prompted new condemnations from the pope and thinly-veiled election comments from some church leaders. “Voting for a candidate who does not respect the embryo is being an accomplice in the homicide of this embryo,” said Jean-Marie Le Mene of the special Vatican committee, the Pontifical Academy for Life, during its annual conference in February.

Signs of popular resistance to the church’s historically strong influence on Italian politics, however, have also been emerging.

In January, protest organizers estimated that a Milan demonstration to show support for reproductive rights drew 200,000 and another rally in Rome on the same day to cheer for civil unions drew 50,000. Both events helped raise expectations of an electoral showdown.

‘Politics on Women’s Bodies’

“Men are doing politics on women’s bodies,” journalist Assunta Sarlo of the leftist weekly Diario told Women’s eNews in a recent phone interview.

Sarlo and others insist that civil and women’s rights issues are sizzling and the elections could mark a backlash to Vatican-influenced social policies.

Sarlo sparked a resurgence of reproductive-rights activism last November when she sent an e-mail urging Italians to stand up to what she described as a repressive social shift. “The newspapers and the political agenda are returning the belligerent image, in tones and substance, of a new strong attack to the one thing we are all fond of: our freedom to choose, even when–as in the case of abortion–it is painful and hard to exercise, as we know.”

Sarlo recalls sending the message to about 150 individuals and lists but her e-mail spread rapidly on the Internet through what she supposes were people who forwarded her e-mail along to others. The message became the basis for a Web site, Usciamo dal Silenzio, or “Let’s Come Out of Silence,” that has become a prime organizing tool for activists.

Reproductive rights activists were dealt a blow when a national referendum last June failed to turn back a law that bans stem-cell research involving embryos and placed limits on fertility treatments. The date of the referendum coincided with a popular vacation period and too few voters cast ballots to meet the required quota. Polls at that time indicated that a majority of Italians supported rights restricted by the law.

Since then, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government has continued its offensive against reproductive rights.

In September 2005, research trials of RU-486, the abortion pill that has not been approved yet in Italy, were suspended. The government in December convened a parliamentary committee to investigate Italy’s 1978 law legalizing abortion within the first 90 days of a pregnancy. In January, in its 2006 spending plan, the Berlusconi government cut funding for family-planning and counseling centers that were first established in 1975 and had been hailed by women’s groups for providing affordable and high-quality health care.

Women’s Representation Also at Stake

Women’s political representation is also at stake in the election. Both the ruling center-right majority and the opposition coalition have presented a meager list of female candidates, confirming Italy as the European country with the lowest percentage of female representatives: just 11.5 percent in the Deputies Chamber and 8.1 percent in the Senate.

To protest the gender imbalance, Wanda Montanelli, head of the equal-opportunities department of the Italy of Values Party, staged a hunger strike for 27 days, but was in critical condition and was persuaded on March 23 to end it. However, the Committee for Wanda, created during the strike, will remain as the equal-opportunity watchdog of Italian politics. But Montanelli said she would start her strike again if promises made by opposition leaders to affirm women’s equality in politics and society aren’t transformed into concrete action.

So far, Berlusconi shows no sign of taking the matter too seriously. “It’s not easy to get women to leave their husbands to move to Rome,” he said in a recent television debate when the topic of female representatives came up.

The Milan demonstration in January brought together established activists who 30 years ago rallied to support abortion rights along with young girls, older women and many men. Old slogans such as “Tremble! The Witches Are Back” from the 1970s mingled with new generational chants such as “Free to Choose” and “We Have Come Out of Silence.”

“Precariousness may become tomorrow’s contraceptive,” said Fiorella Mattio, a young jobless woman speaking from a public stage set up in a major plaza for the Milan demonstration.

Civil Unions and Abortion Rights Gain Support

Before 1978, abortion was illegal in Italy and punishable by imprisonment. According to the Higher Health Institute, between 250,000 and 600,000 illegal abortions occurred each year and many women died of complications. In recent years the number of legal abortions has settled at about 135,000 a year, according to the National Statistics Institute, while the number of illegal abortions has settled between 20,000 and 25,000 per year.

A January poll of more than 1,000 Italians from the Rome-based European Institute of Political, Economic, and Social Studies found that 83 percent of Catholics approved of abortion if the woman’s life was in danger, 73 percent approved in cases of severe malformation and 65 percent approved in cases of rape.

Meanwhile, support for civil unions has been growing in Italy and the opposition coalition has been working on a compromise bill to allow civil unions should it win the elections.

A bill to allow civil unions was first offered up in 2003 by Franco Grillini, president of Arcigay, the Italian gay association, and deputy of the Leftist Democrats (Democratici di Sinistra) party.

At the Rome rally in January, protesters turned out to demand equal rights for unmarried couples of any sex, and European Parliament member Pasqualina Napolentano was symbolically united to her companion in a public ceremony.

The European Institute of Political, Economic, and Social Studies poll found that 69 percent of Italian Catholics and 88 percent of non-Catholics favored some sort of legal recognition for gay or unwed couples. The European Parliament has adjusted laws in 14 nations–including strongly Catholic Spain–to legally acknowledge unmarried couples regardless of sex.

Clara Park is a freelance writer and a communication consultant based in Rome. She is also a staff writer for the Italian women’s news agency Delta News, where she covers world news, gender, human rights and development issues.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at

For more information:

“Italy Holds Referendums on Assisted Reproduction”

Usciamo dal Silenzio
(in Italian):

Delta News
(in Italian):