Crosses bearing tags with names are seen in a graveyard of the Flaminio Cemetery, in Rome, Italy, Oct. 16, 2020.

In Italy, religious organizations’ ‘fetus graves’ reignite abortion debate

Catholic and conservative groups are slowly chipping away at abortion rights in Italy, where abortion has been legal since 1978.

The World

A recently discovered cemetery of aborted fetuses where the names of the women who had had abortions appeared on crosses has sparked outrage across Italy.

Retired gynecologist Silvana Agatone says the cemetery discovery renewed a conversation about growing anti-abortion sentiments in Italy, despite the practice being legal since 1978. Although every public hospital is required to provide abortions, she says only about 64% of them do. 

“There are no more gynecologists who provide abortion.” 

Silvana Agatone, retired gynecologist, Italy

“There are no more gynecologists who provide abortion,” Agatone said, adding that she was the only doctor providing abortions at her public hospital in Rome when she retired last year.

Catholic and conservative groups have been slowly chipping away at abortion rights in Italy through wide-ranging tactics to influence anti-abortion attitudes and legislation. 

A clause in the abortion law allows medical professionals to refuse abortions based on moral or religious grounds — they’re known as conscientious objectors. This applies to everyone in the public health care system, from gynecologists to nurses to anesthesiologists. According to Italy’s Health Ministry, 68% of doctors are objectors.

Related: Abortion is legal in Italy, but most doctors refuse to do it

Under a 1939 regulation, if a mother loses a fetus that is 20 weeks or older — whether from natural miscarriage or voluntary abortion due to a malformation — it must receive a burial. Hospitals are often responsible for arranging these burials and partner with religious groups like the Association to Defend Life with Maria to bury fetuses. 

In a 2010 YouTube video, the organization shows a typical funeral procession for what they call “unborn babies.” Volunteers place dozens of fetuses inside biodegradable boxes, carry them to a cemetery in a hearse and bury them in a mass grave. A Catholic priest blesses the fetuses and says a short prayer.

Spokesperson Stefano Di Battista said in an email interview that these burials are a gesture of honor and piety. The organization has an agreement with public hospitals to collect fetuses once a month, though they never find out anything about the families. Di Battista denied any responsibility for the recently discovered cemetery of aborted fetuses. 

Agatone says that throughout her career, providing abortions was made difficult by nurses who refused to hand over pharmaceutical drugs to induce abortions or by obstetricians unwilling to help in surgical abortions. She says she’d often become overburdened with work — other times, she was seen as solely an abortion provider, as opposed to a versatile gynecologist. In short, the work environment could be hostile for nonobjectors because most hospital heads are objectors.

Related: Italian cities ‘turn back the clock’ on women’s reproductive rights

In 2008, Agatone founded an association of nonobjector gynecologists to create mutual support and ensure abortion services at every public hospital. Now, they’re creating an app that would list every hospital that provides abortions so that pregnant people in dire situations no longer have to travel long distances or visit several hospitals before finding an abortion provider.

“The problem is, most of the gynecologists who provide abortions are now getting old. … [A]ll the [medical] teachers are objectors, so the students, they don’t understand anything about abortion.”

Silvana Agatone, retired gynecologist, Italy

“The problem is, most of the gynecologists who provide abortions are now getting old,” Agatone said.

She said many medical schools don’t teach abortion procedures “because all the teachers are objectors, so the students, they don’t understand anything about abortion.”

Agatone said false information about abortion often circulates in religious Italian media and in hundreds of “support life centers,” which are essentially the Italian equivalent of “pregnancy crisis centers” in the US. She says these facilities, run by religious organizations like the Movement for Life present as neutral but, in reality, have political and religious agendas to dissuade pregnant people from getting an abortion. The organization, however, denies these allegations.

“[This is] not a specific thing that’s happening to any one country, it’s a globalized community of organizations and actors working toward the same aims.”

Neil Datta, secretary, European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights

“[This is] not a specific thing that’s happening to any one country, it’s a globalized community of organizations and actors working toward the same aims,” said Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

Over the past decade, Datta has been investigating a transnational network of ultraright, Christian organizations and powerful individuals lobbying against gender policies, including abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. They organize events like the World Congress of Families — attended by politicians, religious leaders and aristocrats — where they strategize ways to maintain a Christian-centered vision of society. The last one, in 2019, took place in Verona, Italy, and was attended, among other people, by then-Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

Related: Study finds abortions rise worldwide as US cuts funding

Datta says the ultraconservative movement was sparked by social advances that had started in the mid-1990s.

“Now, in Europe, there’s a whole ecosystem of [conservative] organizations that work against human rights … And they’re in touch with different decision-makers, public authorities, politicians, et cetera, and they know how to wash their messages so that it sounds reasonable.”

Datta says these groups focus on specific countries — instead of pursuing a Europewide abortion ban — by using similar tactics adapted to respective cultural and political contexts. Their goal is to slowly chip away at abortion rights and hope for a domino effect.

Datta says these organizations often paint themselves as grassroots movements when, in reality, they’re financed by wealthy individuals. A recent report published by the nonprofit Open Democracy shed light on dozens of US organizations — some with links to the Trump administration — funneling millions of dollars into conservative political campaigns in Europe.

These US conservative think tanks have also been successful in helping to get anti-abortion politicians elected and judges appointed — both in Europe and the US, Datta says. 

In a written statement from one of these groups, Alliance Defending Freedom International, a spokesperson didn’t confirm or deny the findings but said Open Democracy is seeking to shut down debate and launch a smear campaign.

Datta rejects those claims and says it’s important to build awareness about these organizations so that politicians can be alert to their tactics.

“This is important because even though there’s not something yet happening, they may have the people in the right place, in the near future, to do something,” Datta said. “It’s a long-term game. And now, in Europe, they’re only at the beginning of this.”

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