Church and state against women's rights

Will Italy's Rifondazione Comunista risk upsetting their coalition partners-to-be by defending women's rights? Anne Mc Shane reports from the struggle over abortion rights in Italy

Abortion has become a central issue in the forthcoming general election in Italy. Berlusconi’s government has set up a review into the application of the present law, which allows abortion within the first three months of pregnancy. If unchallenged the results will be deeply damaging for Italian women.

Law 194 was introduced following a struggle for abortion rights in 1978. It is a contradictory piece of legislation which aims to promote ‘family values’, while allowing abortion to take place when women are adamant that they cannot go through with a pregnancy. And quite a large number of Italian women do not want to have children - or at least not the number required by the state. Birth rates are about 1.28 per woman, one of the lowest in the world. But also abortion rates have plummeted from 235,000 in 1982 to 132,178 in 2003. Obviously Italian women are using contraception effectively and abortion is in fact becoming more residual as a means of birth control.

But that is not good enough for the government and its allies in the Vatican. They criticise the staff of state-funded abortion clinics for not dissuading women from having abortions and say that they have not been applying the law properly. Health minister Franceso Storace, member of the National Alliance and a committed ‘pro-lifer’, has called for an investigation into why women are not leaving abortion clinics pregnant. He has suggested that the Movement for Life, a fundamentalist catholic organisation headed by Carlo Casini, be brought into abortion clinics to ‘counsel’ women into not having terminations.

The Vatican is extremely confident that it has spearheaded a sea-change in Italian political views and morality on family questions. It claims to have led a successful ‘active boycott’ of a referendum in June which proposed the removal of restrictions on fertility treatment. Partly because of the church’s campaign, but also no doubt because of the confusing nature of the referendum, the turnout was so low that the poll was declared invalid. Italian law therefore continues to define embryos as having the same rights as citizens and in doing so prohibits many aspects of contemporary fertility treatment. There can be no embryo research, no freezing of embryos, and no third-party donors of eggs or sperm.

This of course affects the population rate - and is damaging to working class women and men who cannot afford to travel abroad for treatment - but that is of no consequence to the right wing, for whom the real issue is social control over the population, not its well-being or development. Emboldened by its apparent success, the Vatican has pronounced its intention to reverse the growth of secularism in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Wasting no time in setting out his political agenda, pope Benedict XVI declared battle on “that form of culture, based upon a purely functional rationality, that contradicts and tends to exclude christianity and, in general, the religious and moral traditions of humanity” (www.chiesa.expresson-line.ie).

With that in mind, he has also stepped up repression of those who support the liberalisation of the church’s policy on homosexuality. Guidelines published in November affirm that “active homosexuals and supporters of gay culture may not become priests” - homosexual acts being “grave sins” that cannot be justified under any circumstances (www.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4480558.stm). His recent pronouncements have shown his determination to be a politically active pope. One of the most recent on December 4 saw him reiterating that human life had to be respected “right from conception to its natural end” and congratulating health minister Storace for his insistence on intervention at abortion clinics to prevent any interference with this right to life.

There have also been controversies about the abortion pill, RU486, which allows women to have non-surgical abortions in the very early stages of a pregnancy. Cardinal Ruini wailed that it is a “suppression of innocent human life” and Storace has tried to prevent its use with little success. Doctors and clinics have bought the pill in from abroad and continue to promote and use this simple and safe method of early abortion. Exasperated and determined to impose his will, and with the backing of the government, Storace then went on to force through the current review. It is a barely concealed attempt to undermine the independence of abortion clinics and subject women to insidious pressure from the Movement for Life and other pro-life activists inside clinics. It will not, of course, prevent abortion, but drive it underground. What woman would want to subject herself to such an invasion of privacy and religious pressure when attending for an abortion?

Following the June referendum, there is of course the continuing problem of embryo rights. An unresolved and strange situation exists where embryos have citizen rights under fertility laws, while law 194 gives women the right to choose a termination up to three months. And while both church and government say that they do not wish to repeal 194, this is obvious crass hypocrisy. It is clearly their ultimate aim to make abortion illegal. Reactionary forces have been successful in reversing the situation in Poland and Portugal in recent years and nobody should be foolish enough to think it cannot happen in Italy.

Yet, while Berlusconi and his allies have openly lined up with the Vatican, the left is not so clear. Romano Prodi is a practising catholic who has made clear his commitment to the church. Although he professes himself to be a ‘grown-up catholic’ who cannot be bullied by bishops, he clearly cannot be relied on. His election coalition, l’Union, includes the centre-left Margherita party, which has come up with its own proposal - to pay women not to have abortions. Women considering terminations would be paid money by the state from the third month of pregnancy - with single and unemployed women getting less than married working mothers!

Despite denials on their part, this has quite rightly been seen as part of the ‘pro-life’ campaign. Both centre-right and centre-left are out to win catholic votes. The church is seen as more influential following the June referendum and both sides are pandering to that perceived authority.

Demonstrations are to be held across Italy on January 14 by BellaCiao, a women’s collective. They aim to defend law 194 against the attacks. Rifondazione Comunista is supporting these demonstrations. However, under the misleadership of Fausto Bertinotti the PRC has joined l’Union. Rifondazione is therefore dangerously compromised. Will it betray the interests of Italian women or will it break from l’Union, the Margherita party and Prodi?