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Italy: abortion revisited.

After a few years of relative calm, abortion is once again a very live issue in Italy. The current debate has two stages. The first began in April 1988 when the Constitutional Court ruled that a married woman has the right to abort without her husband's consent and indeed over his objection, a ruling criticized even by some supporters of Italy's liberal 1978 law. Such a discussion was particularly important since after ten years of legalized abortion, the Parliament was called to reconsider the law, and some feared it would no longer have majority support. However, in a July 1988 decision Parliament reaffirmed the law. The second stage of the debate began earlier this year when two colleagues of Dr. Francesco Dambrosio of the Mangiagalli Clinic in Milan brought to public attention the fact that on December 28, 1988 Dr. Dambrosio had performed a therapeutic abortion involving a five-month female fetus diagnosed as having a genetic anomaly that would lead to infertility. The 1978 law permits abortion at a woman's request in the first trimester of pregnancy and thereafter for therapeutic reasons when pathological conditions-defined in the law to include fetal anomalies or malformations-pose a grave danger to the woman's physical or mental health" (Art. 6). European deputee Roberto Formigoni immediately denounced the abortion and called on the Christian Democratic Minister of Health, Cario Donat Cattin, to investigate whether the law had been breached. Early in january, a commission of inquiry photocopied files concerning over 1,000 therapeutic abortions performed at the Mangiagalli clinic over the preceding ten years, further inflaming the debate. Pro-choice advocates charged that the commission had no right to copy the files and that the physicians who reported the incident had breached patient confidentiality and themselves violated the law since they had no right of access to the relevant records. They requested clinic president Angelo Craveri, also a conservative Christian Democrat, to apply administrative sanctions against the informants. However, he refused to take any measures against the reporting physicians and instead denounced Dambrosio to the courts, where the matter is now pending. Craveri's actions led to a political crisis within the clinic's administrative council and resulted in his replacement. Pro-life advocates, meanwhile, contended that the December incident was not an isolated violation of the law, with Donat Cattin himself alleging some twelve similar cases at the clinic. They called for strict enforcement of the existing law and further urged restrictive reforms. Thus, for example, since requests for abortion must be approved by a committee, opponents of abortion have called for including an anti-abortionist on each committee to evaluate the legitimacy of a woman's request for the procedure. They also charged that the laws prohibition of abortion as a means of birth control is often disregarded in practice and contended that the legislation failed to accomplish its aims of reducing the overall abortion rate and ending clandestine abortions.

The pro-choice response to such charges noted that the law has in fact been effective in reducing the number of abortions performed annually, from 196,969 in 1986 to 187,618 in 1987 for example. They argued that it is the preventive aspects of the 1978 law that have been neglected, since contraceptive information is still not widely disseminated. Indeed, schools do not even provide sex education. They too sought reform of the law, however, calling for amendments to preclude doctors taking undue advantage of its "conscientious objection" clause in refusing to perform abortions. They charged that the sincerity of such objections is open to question when as many as 70 percent of physicians routinely invoke the clause, and argued that many Italian women are effectively denied access to abortion altogether-as in Reggio Calabria, where all physicians decline to perform abortions on grounds of conscience.

Tensions regarding the abortion law were exacerbated when Italian bishops celebrated a "life day" on the first Sunday in February and condemned what they see as an "antilife mentality" evidenced in Italy's birth rate, currently one of the lowest in the West The polemic was further inflamed when the media made public the fact that since 1988 the local branch of the National Health Service in Bracciano has routinely buried aborted fetuses.

As of july 1989 the law remained unchanged, and does not seem likely to be revised under the new liberal Minister of Health Francesco De Lorenzo. So far the only recognizable effect of the months-long turnmoil has been a drastic reduction in the number of women seeking abortion at the Mangiagalli Clinic. Quite possibly women have resorted instead to illegal abortion.
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Author:Mori, Maurizio
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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