If it was hard enough for Beatrice to get an abortion when she had the law on her side, imagine how other women will cope should Italy’s rising right get its way on reproductive rights.

“What I have been through is very painful, but it is even worse knowing that there are other women out there who are going to go through the same thing.”

The 24-year-old law student was in a new relationship when she took a pregnancy test in the summer of 2021 after her suspicions were raised by unusual bouts of nausea.

It turned out she was already two months into an unplanned pregnancy that she did not want – so the race was on to beat Italy’s 90-day cutoff for an abortion.

The student frantically searched online for a doctor who would perform a termination and managed to find a gynaecologist near her home in Naples.

But she was not ready for what came next.

At her first appointment, the Neapolitan said she was coerced by staff into continuing the pregnancy, and even made to listen to the foetal heartbeat despite her repeated calls to mute the sound.

“I felt terrible, paralysed,” she told Context, her pale hands tugging lightly on her jeans.

“The heartbeat was the worst thing ever,” said the redhead, who prefers to remain anonymous due to a deep stigma that surrounds abortion in her predominantly Catholic country.

She was given no information about next steps or offered any direction for her new future.

Feeling utterly alone, she had to hunt down medical certificates to confirm her pregnancy, sit out a five-day mandatory reflection period then search frantically for a doctor who was not a conscientious objector.

In the end, thanks to a friend, she found one, albeit 400 km (249 miles) away in an area known to be strongly anti-abortion.

Legal but available?

Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978 but access to the op remains limited and can be fraught with difficulties.

Up to 69% of gynaecologists and 46% of anaesthetists refuse to carry out abortions on the grounds of conscience, according to Health Ministry data.

The issue is increasingly dominating politics, too.

Abortion repeatedly made headlines in September’s parliamentary elections, a process that elevated Giorgia Meloni to lead Italy’s most right-wing government since World War Two.

And although Meloni said she would not would not change Italy’s abortion laws, women’s rights campaigners fear new restrictions might follow.

Law 194 – the bill that guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion – has come under repeated attack over the years and advocates say it is vital to keep girls and women safe as the threat of repeal looms ever larger.

“We have a lot of rage, and we are going after them – the people who prevent women from having abortions – and we’re not doing it peacefully,” said Bianca Monteleone, a member of ‘Objection Rejected’, a Pisa-based abortion rights group.


Hostility towards women

Women were quick to take to the streets after the elections, with thousands descending on Rome’s central square a month into the new administration in a show of female force.

Their faces were daubed with pink glitter and their banners demanded that Italy “end the war on our bodies”.

Activist Elenora Mizzoni said existing law might well allow abortion – but women faced a wall of hostility accessing it.

“It’s the waiting times, making you listen to the heartbeat, priests on the wards, the doctors treating you like a murderer,” she said.

Her collective, called Objection Rejected, has been mapping clinics that offer abortions – no official lists exist – and also accompanies women on medical appointments to lend support.

They fear that government will make it still harder to get an abortion, even if it doesn’t tinker with the actual law.

Abortion lottery

Law 194 lets health professionals opt out of performing abortions on grounds of conscience, a setup that operates in 22 European Union states.

Since the 1970s, the number of objectors in Italy grew from 59% of the total medical pool to 65% by 2020, with some regions reporting 83% of practitioners opting out.

Abortion activists said the stark regional differences created vastly unequal access, with the south most conservative.

Credit: Joanna Gill Source: Italian Ministry of Health

Official data from 2020 shows less than 8% of doctors would terminate pregnancies in the regions of Abruzzo and Molise.

This meant few doctors performing abortions within the legal limit, pushing women to travel farther afield, often in haste.

All of which means the state can no longer guarantee a woman’s legal right to an abortion, activists say.

“Every time a civil right is denied, or restricted, it causes new inequalities,” Giorgia Serughetti, a professor at the University of Milano-Bicocca, said in emailed comments.

Indeed, economists say access to abortion can drive marriage rates, curtail education, limit work options and hit earnings.

Nor is Italy an outlier.

Poland outlawed abortion in almost all cases in 2021, and Hungary recently tightened its law, too.

“We see in many, many regions of the world there is an attempt to transform society and the rights we think we have and go back to the past,” said Irene Donadio of the International Planned Parenthood Federation-Europe, an non-governmental organisation dedicated to sexual and reproductive health.

Inspiration from US

Nowhere does the battle loom bigger than the United States, after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v Wade measure that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion.

If the Supreme Court emboldened “pro-life” Americans, Monteleone worries that the hard-right Brothers of Italy party may be taking notes and will try to roll back rights in Italy.

In September, Senator Maurizio Gasparri proposed a bill to ‘protect the rights of the unborn’ - a move that could reclassify abortion as murder.

Within the cabinet, Meloni nominated anti-abortion Eugenia Roccella as Minister for Family, Natality and Equal Opportunities; she recently said abortion was not a right.

Maria Rachele Ruia runs a “pro-life and family” association in Rome. For her, the law is no problem - she simply wants to create a world in which abortion is “unthinkable”.

Earlier this year, Ruia stepped aside from her day job to run for office with the Brothers of Italy party. She did not win but said plenty inside parliament will be championing her cause.

The Brothers of Italy would not comment on their agenda.

Women at risk

A recent court case shows the dangers of limiting access to abortion – for medics, as well as for women.

Four doctors, all so-called ‘conscientious objectors’ received suspended sentences for manslaughter in November after denying a 32-year-old woman a late abortion, which was legal as the pregnancy had put her life in danger.

Valentina Milluzzo was five months pregnant when she went into premature labour with twins in 2016.

After enduring one stillborn birth, the medics refused to abort her second foetus, and the woman died of septic shock.

“When a hospital decides to apply its own laws, and decide when a woman’s life is at risk or not, then you end up having people dying,” said Donadio.

It echoes cases in Poland and Ireland where women died of complications during pregnancy due to a denial of care, showing how uneven abortion access is across Europe, said Donadio.

“It is heartbreaking knowing the consequences, because this is real oppression. You have such a huge impact on people’s lives.”

The abortion wars also reflect a misogynist mindset, said the Milan professor Serughetti, one that “stigmatises women as murderers, the other which pities them as victims of poverty”.

“Both have roots in a religion that strongly opposes women’s self-determination in reproductive matters, and which has much influence in Italian society and politics.”

This article first appeared on Context, powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.