Lessons for Ireland from the Pro-Choice movement in Italy

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I moved to Ireland from Italy shortly after the Strike4Repeal of the 8th of March, a mass mobilisation on the streets of Dublin in protest of Ireland’s archaic abortion laws, which I followed closely on social media. While still in Italy, I had been involved in organising a successful feminist demonstration in the city where I lived, on that same date (International Women’s Day), and I felt deep sympathy and admiration for the Irish pro-choice activists and the amazing work they were carrying out. At first glance it was unbelievable to me that in a western-European country people still had to take the streets to demand access to abortion. While the Irish situation initially felt like something I could not relate to, I soon remembered where I was from and I had to think twice: despite abortion being legal in my home country, safe and effective access to abortion service is currently utopia.

The legal right to terminate a pregnancy was granted to Italians in 1978 with the entry into force of Law 194, approved as a result of a long series of protests and campaigning led by feminist activists, far-left organisations and movements and left-wing political parties. The law established the possibility to request an abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy (and during the second trimester in case of high risk for the physical or mental health of the child bearer). On the other hand, it granted the right to conscientious objection, allowing doctors to refuse to perform an abortion on moral, ethical or religious grounds. Unfortunately, as no specific restrictions were set to limit this option, an ever-increasing number of healthcare practitioners take advantage of the loophole and refrain from helping to carry out abortive procedures, thus endangering women’s safety and disregarding totally their bodily autonomy.

Horror stories about women being shamed, mistreated and denied essential medical assistance are countless and have sometimes ended up in tragedy. Meanwhile, numerous anti-choice groups of Catholic and right-wing affiliation praise conscientious objection as a form of proud opposition against “legalised murder” and are allowed to spread misleading and deceptive information to dissuade women from “killing their babies”. The figures show 70% of gynecologists are conscientious objectors, with astonishing peaks of 85-90% in Southern regions; moreover, the anti-choice epidemic includes professional categories that are technically not allowed to object, such as pharmacists, porters and paramedical staff, who refuse to take part in the procedure or even to provide contraception.

To add insult to injury, there is a blatant lack of political will to prevent a law that already exists from being constantly circumvented on the basis of religious beliefs; the only pockets of resistance to this impasse lay in associations of pro-choice physicians or activists of grassroots movements, who promote awareness raising and offer information and technical support to people seeking an abortion. The project “Obiezione Respinta”, to name one, monitors the presence of objectors in hospitals, clinics and pharmacies throughout Italy, based on reports received from users, who are encouraged to leave a short comment on their experience or to suggest names of healthcare institutions where non-objectors can be found. Being forced to rely on self-organised networks to access a medical procedure which has been perfectly legal for almost forty years is paradoxical, yet it is a harsh reality for a large portion of Italians, particularly for those of us who live in areas where the percentage of objectors is outrageously high.

Conscientious objection creates an alarming precedent that should not be underestimated by activists involved in the struggle for abortion rights in Ireland. The case of Italy illustrates to us a lesson of paramount importance: people fighting for the right to control their own bodies and lives cannot rely exclusively on the hope that a benevolent government will sooner or later grant them those fundamental rights. Repealing the 8th amendment and regulating access to abortion by law is without a doubt essential; still, it is evident that legislation will not stop the disciples of patriarchy and obscurantism from standing in the way of women’s rights. Compromise is not an option: the demand is not for any law, but for a law as comprehensive and unambiguous as possible which grants free and safe access to abortion to all with no cop-outs. And yet, that’s not the ultimate solution either. Radical and lasting societal change is what we strive for - without such a change, privileged groups will always be able to generate new loopholes to keep oppressing minorities, no matter how restrictive legislation becomes.

I have no right to vote in this country, but I have a body, a voice and a great deal of anger and hope to bring on the streets of Dublin on the 30th of September. While I can’t influence the institutional change, I can be a small part of a broader change – and who knows which one will matter most in the long term.

 

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