ON PAPER, Italy’s law on abortion seems flawless – but reality is much different due to the existence the loophole known as conscientious objection.
Abortion was illegal in Italy until May 1978, when Law 194 was passed and introduced the right to terminate a pregnancy safely and with the minimal risk for women’s health. By law, any woman is allowed to terminate a pregnancy on request during the first 90 days for whatever reason they see fit. Once obtained proof as to the state of the pregnancy, all that it takes is making an appointment with a structure authorized to terminate the pregnancy. This may be either a public hospital, where the whole procedure is free of charge, or in a structure authorized by the regional health authorities. Should carrying the pregnancy to term endanger the woman’s life or health, or should the foetus’ health turn out to be seriously compromised – thus putting strain on the mother’s emotional and psychological state – the termination can be carried out up to 20 weeks after conception.
All in all Law 194 seems flawless, allowing women to terminate an undesired pregnancy with minimal risk for their health. Reality, however, is quite different. The most obvious loophole is that of conscientious objection: the possibility for any doctor to refuse performing an abortion on ethical or religious grounds. As a result, while Law 194 grants women the right to a safe abortion, doctors are also allowed to refuse performing it.
The volume of objection
What raises an issue is the sheer amount of conscientious objectors. While the percentage varies depending on the region, it only goes below fifty percent in one region. In several regions conscientious objectors are 80 – 85% of the medical personnel qualified to perform abortions. These numbers are at odds with people’s general attitude toward the issue: in 2012 a Censis report found that only 26% of individuals interviewed were against the right to abortion, with 60% being pro-choice.
As a result of the high percentage of objectors, booking an appointment can be far more difficult than it should be – with the risk of getting past the time limit of 90 days after which a pregnancy can only be terminated under special circumstances. While any attempt at changing the situation has been rejected by Catholics and pro-life movements as an attack to the medical personnel’s conscientious freedom, Claudio Crescini – of the Italian Association of Hospital Obstetricians and Gynecologists – says that it often isn’t a matter of personal belief.
“Abortion is overused in electoral and political debates, and there’s a lot of pressure on us,” he says.“While it’s not explicitly stated, someone who’s not an objector doesn’t have the easy career an objector makes – and they’re often forced to perform nothing but abortions.” In short, conscientious objectors have less of a work load than non-objectors with no risk of damaging their career by avoiding a loaded issue. It’s no wonder that many choose not to perform abortions for convenience rather than because of a religious or ethical issues.
An even bigger obstacle comes from those who take their right to conscientious objection well past what the law allows. Objectors have the right not to personally perform an abortion – but that’s all. Emergency contraception, like the morning-after pill or RU-486, isn’t covered by the right to objection; there is no right for the doctor to refuse prescribing it, or for any medical professional to refuse giving it to a woman who asks for it.
At what cost ?
And yet that’s precisely what happens and women’s right to safely terminate or avoid a pregnancy is constantly under attack. Despite it being against the law, many doctors downright refuse to prescribe emergency contraception. Last week in Voghera, a town in Lombardy, a nurse kept two young women from accessing to the hospital when they said they wished to get a prescription for the morning-after pill. It’s not uncommon for objectors to try guilting women into not terminating the pregnancy, adding strain to what’s already a stressful situation. Some were even left alone through part of the procedure because the doctors and nurses who started their shift were objectors. As a result, women have to leap through fire hoops for a chance to terminate a pregnancy – a right granted by Law 194. Some doctor go as far as refusing to certify their state, knowing that without a certificate they cannot terminate a pregnancy without medical proof that there is indeed a pregnancy. The practice is so widespread that Nicola Zingaretti, President of Lazio, had to introduce new rules in his region stating that medical personnel in public structures could not refuse to certify a state of pregnancy or to prescribe emergency contraception.
This raises the question of what pro-life movements precisely hope to accomplish by trying to force women into carrying undesired pregnancies to term. If they think it would make abortions stop, they’re sorely mistaken: history and common sense tell us it wouldn’t be the case.
A 2000 survey by Istat – the Italian National Institute of Statistics – estimates that at least 20,000 illegal abortions were carried on every year prior to 1978, when Law 194 was passed and abortion became legal. The fact most illegal abortions were obvious carried on in secret makes it difficult to give exact figures; Istat doesn’t rule out the possibility their estimate may be lower than the truth.Before Law 194 abortions had been happening under wraps in the entire country as illegal, unsafe procedures that could easily result with the woman’s death due to haemorrhage and infections. Fear of social stigma would lead many unmarried women to risk their lives to terminate the pregnancy; fear of punishment would keep them from seeking medical help afterwards. Even for those who sought help, it was often too late.
This is what comes out of taking away women’s right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term: not only it fails to keep abortions from happening, but it also puts women in the position to risk their own health and lives to terminate a pregnancy.
So much for pro-life.
Written by Allessandra Pacelli
Image Credit: Paolo Margari