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regular-article-logo Friday, 31 May 2024

Italy’s new abortion law is a lesson in how Giorgia Meloni governs

The first Italian prime minister with roots in parties born from the ashes of Fascism, she has assured a once skeptical foreign-policy establishment that she is a trustworthy, more-or-less mainstream partner willing to play nice in Brussels and act as a solid U.S. ally against Russian aggression

Elisabetta Povoledo, Jason Horowitz Published 24.04.24, 11:00 AM
Giorgia Meloni

Giorgia Meloni Shutterstock

At a family counseling center in Verbania, a leafy lakefront town in northern Italy, employees not only explain to women the rules for getting abortions, they have also distributed leaflets supplied by a local anti-abortion group.

“Are you pregnant?” reads the flyer from the “Center for Assistance to Life” in the town. If you think the only option is abortion, it tells women considering the procedure: “Contact us! We can talk and together it will be different.”

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Soon, there may be more than just flyers in this and similar centers. A measure introduced by the right-wing party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and passed by the Parliament on Tuesday potentially emboldens anti-abortion groups to advocate inside family counseling centers, reminds her conservative supporters that she is one of them and has driven the liberal opposition crazy — all without actually changing much.

The measure is essentially a restatement of a part of Italy’s 1978 abortion law, which emphasized prevention even as it legalized abortion. To that end, the law allowed the family counseling centers to make use of volunteer associations “protecting motherhood” to help women avoid terminating their pregnancies because of economic, social or family hardships.

But the new legislation — and the changes it could inspire — again shows Meloni’s mastery of political messaging. The first Italian prime minister with roots in parties born from the ashes of Fascism, she has assured a once skeptical foreign-policy establishment that she is a trustworthy, more-or-less mainstream partner willing to play nice in Brussels and act as a solid U.S. ally against Russian aggression.

But political analysts say that the domestic agenda she has pursued since coming to power 18 months ago still very much fits her long-standing beliefs — and pleases her traditional base — without yet making dramatic changes that could set back her international image.

“She’s subtle,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, professor emeritus of political science at Bologna University, adding that Meloni was seeking to shift Italian and European sensibilities to the right without necessarily changing laws. “She’s an excellent politician.”

Beyond the abortion measure, Meloni is pursuing a change to Italy’s constitution that would allow citizens to vote directly for the prime minister. She says it would make Italian governments more stable, something center-left parties have also sought; her critics say it would eliminate checks and balances and create opportunities for a potential future autocrat.

Her party has proposed making it a criminal offense for Italians to get around their country’s ban on surrogacy by finding surrogates in nations that allow the practice, and her government has passed anti-immigration measures and proposed a cap on non-Italian students in classrooms.

And yet, Meloni has proved difficult to pigeonhole.

Last week, the public broadcaster RAI, which she has packed in the Italian tradition with political allies, was accused of censoring an author who planned to read an anti-fascist monologue on air that accused the Meloni government of attempting to rewrite history. Meloni disputed the allegation of censorship, arguing that the writer had simply asked for too much money. Then, in a move that confounded her critics, she published the whole monologue on her social media feed.

On the abortion issue, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party includes politicians who have proposed giving legal rights to embryos. But here, too, she has taken a different tack.

In an interview with The New York Times shortly before her election in 2022, Meloni said she had a “very deep approach” to the issue as a result of her mother’s nearly aborting her after her father ran out on the family. She said she had no intention of overturning abortion rights but wanted to ensure that women considering having abortions had another option. The 1978 law stipulates that women be given “all necessary help” to avoid the procedure.

“I want to apply it all,” Meloni said, referring to the original law. “There is a part about the abortion law which is about prevention. That was never done.” She added that her hope was to do “whatever I can do to help a woman who thinks abortion is the only way.”

But even some of those who share her goals are dubious about the value of the legislation passed Tuesday.

“My impression is that it won’t do much,” said Laura Cristofari, who was surrounded by bassinets, baby carriages and toys in the office of the Center for Assistance to Life in Verbania. Her group, she said, already had a space inside the local hospital where abortions were performed, in which the activists could meet with women who were contemplating the procedure.

Jacopo Coghe, president of Pro-Life and Family, a vocal anti-abortion organization, said that while he was happy the government had reiterated the right of anti-abortion groups to be part of discussions with women contemplating abortion, his group did not plan to enter counseling centers. He said he preferred to focus on changing policy, such as campaigning for a requirement that a woman seeking an abortion hear the fetus’s heartbeat before proceeding.

Some campaigners for abortion rights also say the law will not do much. Mirella Parachini, a gynecologist and long-standing activist for abortion rights, said that the measure was a “proclamation that changes nothing,” adding that it was merely “waving an ideological flag.”

But other supporters of abortion rights have protested outside the Parliament, and said they feared the measure would embolden anti-abortion activists to be more assertive in their approach to women seeking abortions.

Beatrice Lorenzin, a former health minister who is now a senator in the opposition Democratic Party, said that because of Italy’s regional health system, she was unsure if anti-abortion groups had collaborated with family counseling centers in the past. She said the measure did little to clear up the protocol, including which groups could go in, who chose the groups and what they could do once inside.

Abortion-rights activists also said there were already many practical impediments to abortion in Italy, which is legal within 90 days of pregnancy, or later for women in mental or physical danger or in cases of serious fetal pathologies.

Italian doctors can conscientiously object to the procedure, and many do. More than 60% of gynecologists — according to the National Institute of Health — are conscientious objectors. In some southern regions, the numbers are even higher, according to one study.

An abortion pill has been available to women for the past four years, but in the majority of regions it is not easily accessible as outpatient treatment.

(Asked in the 2022 interview with the Times if she was committed to keeping abortion safe and legal, Meloni said it was “already accessible and safe and legal.” When asked about the high level of conscientious objection, she said: “Look, that’s another fake news. I think if a doctor doesn’t want to do that, he is free not to do that. But there is no woman in Italy who wanted to abort and didn’t find somebody to do that.”)

The new measure, which was slipped into a major COVID relief spending bill as a rider, has nevertheless attracted attention beyond Italy. Ana Redondo, the minister of equality in Spain, one of Europe’s most progressive governments, called it shameful.

“It is the strategy of the ultraright: to intimidate in order to reverse rights, to stop equality between women and men,” she wrote on social media.

Meloni, speaking to the national wire agency ANSA, retorted: “Several times I have listened to foreign ministers talking about Italian domestic issues without knowing the facts. Normally when one is ignorant about an issue, one should at least have the good sense not to give lessons.”

Even some opponents of abortion suggested that with European Parliament elections coming up in June, the new Italian law had less to do with women’s rights than with electoral politics.

“To get votes, they put forward proposals that have no heads or tails,” said Renata Natili Micheli, president of a Catholic women’s association. The measure, she said, would simply ignite an “ideological tinderbox.”

The New York Times News Service

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