In this briefing, Teresa Petralia, a 3rd-year BSc Politics student, explores the newly-elected Meloni government, its implications on abortion rights, and the international stakes at play. This article was edited by Sumru Nur Elden, Bluebird Co-Editor.
Event profile and background
Following the fall of a technocratic government, Italy elected its 19th legislature with a record-low turnout this September. Georgia Meloni’s right-wing party, Fratelli D’Italia, emerged as the winner, later making her the country’s first female prime minister. The party holds roots in neo-fascist ideology – one of its founders, Ignazio La Russa, collects fascist memorabilia, and it is said that the flame on its logo represents the light over Mussolini’s tomb (though Meloni denies this).
Being headlined as the country’s most right-wing government since Mussolini, questions about the future of rights in the country have surfaced.
Because the party places much emphasis on the importance of the family — the party’s slogan is ‘God, Homeland, and Family’ — those who support abortion rights are distressed. Shortly before the election, Meloni announced that she had no intention of changing the abortion law (Law 194, 1978), repeating it four times for emphasis. Instead, her claims are directed towards enforcing it, thereby “adding a right”– the right to abort. “Is it to add or to remove a right? Let’s say things how they are”, she says. Is this really as reassuring as she envisioned it to be? What adding a right means or how it will be implemented is thus of great curiosity and discussion.
The law the new Prime Minister is referring to is one that legalized abortion in 1978. There are some loopholes to the legalization, however. First, the law gives gynecologists the right to conscientious objection, meaning they can refuse to perform abortion procedures if it goes against their morals or religion. Other medical professionals hold the same right, only in cases where the woman’s life is not at risk. This makes abortion extremely inaccessible: the national average of conscientious objectors is well above half of all doctors, with some regions reaching well over 80%. In Molise, for instance, only has one non-objecting gynecologist, and the accessibility of abortion is virtually impossible. In the cases where the doctor agrees to carry out the abortion, the patient must attend a mandatory counseling session to remove ‘obstacles’ hindering the carrying out of the pregnancy. This prolongs the process of obtaining an abortion, thereby leading to significant hindrances in the abortion process. So, in saying that Meloni wants to enforce Law 194, she is, at best, saying she wants to restrict access to abortion, meaning a constraint on abortion rights.
Though rather weak, this abortion legislation is constitutionally-entrenched, as it is protected by the constitutional articles ensuring the inviolability of human rights and of the right to healthcare. This means that it cannot be changed with the same process as one changes regular legislation. This illuminates Meloni’s focus on enforcing the current legislation, by making the abortion process long and cumbersome, the aim is to decrease or even in some cases yield abortions inaccessible.
Now, only ten days into her prime ministership, it is clear she aims to follow through with this. She has appointed Lorenzo Fontana, an extremely conservative politician, as the President of the Chamber of Deputies, the third highest-ranking position in the country. He has said that abortion is a “strange case of right that allows the killing of an innocent”. She also announced her list of ministers, which includes a minister for ‘Family, Natality, and Equal Opportunities to support birth and the family. This refers to the low birthrates, caused by the socio-economic context unfit to start a family in. When Meloni says she wants to give women the right to not abort, it is because she believes in this ideal that women aren’t giving birth because they can’t, rather than because they don’t want to.
Her questioning of constitutionally-entrenched rights may have implications for what will happen to other rights of the same sort. With rights being at stake, Europe’s watchful eyes are set on this new government.
Upon winning, Meloni received a heartfelt Tweet from Orban, Hungary’s extremely conservative prime minister, in which he said, “Long live the Hungarian-Italian friendship!”. She received no such congratulations from Emmanuel Macron, French President, or Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany. Without wanting to jump to conclusions, there is some worry that Italy is moving closer to illiberal countries, such as Hungary and Poland, and further from France and Germany.
Meloni’s views on the European Union (EU) are unclear. Though she supports NATO and military aid in Ukraine, she opposed EU sanctions on Russia when it annexed Crimea in 2014. In some aspects, Meloni has moderated her Eurosceptic views, now advocating for Italy’s stronger role in the Union. On the other hand, she continues to demonstrate a want for more autonomous rule away from ‘France and Germany’s control of the EU’.
During the elections, Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, warned Italy that if things go in a difficult direction regarding rights, the EU has the ‘tools’ to deal with it. In response, Salvini, Meloni’s coalition vice-Prime Minister, asked Von der Leyen to respect the sovereignty of the Italian people.
These tools refer, for example, to the proposed 7.5b funding cut for Hungary, still under debate. The EU needs approval from at least 15 members representing 65% of the population. Poland has already made clear that it strongly opposes the funding cuts - creating suspicion of the formation of a triangular Italy-Poland-Hungary alliance.
There are other tools available to ensure the protection of abortion rights specifically. The European Court of Human Rights has intervened in the past to ensure the accessibility of abortion in Northern Ireland. And there is no reason why it should not intervene again if the situation evolves to require so.
This discussion of rights has involved many women, other than Meloni herself, including Ursula Von der Leyen, Elisabeth Borne, and Marine Le Pen. Naturally, the question of whether having a female prime minister in itself does anything for women’s rights arises. Regardless of one’s positioning on the political spectrum, it is true that Meloni’s achievement in arriving at such a position is rather impressive considering the political landscape. Italy’s political establishment is deeply patriarchal, hindering women’s entrance into it, and, in this sense, she did indeed break the glass ceiling that had thus far stopped women.
But, there is adequate evidence to believe that, at most, Meloni’s prime ministership will not advance women’s rights. Starting from the name of the party itself: it can be translated into either Brothers of Italy or Siblings of Italy. But, given her recent actions, it certainly feels more brotherly than sibling-like (and definitely not sisterly). Though she is the first woman to head an Italian cabinet, it comprises only six women out of twenty-four. Furthermore, she has decided to refer to herself with the masculine article: il presidente, rather than la presidente.
Europe, however, shows it is possible for women to further women’s rights whilst being in positions of power, with actors like Von der Leyen and Borne, French prime minister. The former speaks out against sexism, even in her own personal experience, pushes legislation on women’s quotas in businesses, and strongly supports women’s rights worldwide. The latter has declared that France will be attentive to that the right to abortion will be respected by everyone. At the same time, the European Parliament’s President, Roberta Metsola, is an openly anti-abortion woman. Can we really, then, rely on Europe’s support for women’s rights?
Conclusions and Outcomes
What will actually happen to abortion in Italy? There is no way of knowing now, but we have fair reasons to believe that we are heading in the direction of fewer rights.
What certainly will not be happening is the betterment of abortion rights and access. A significant problem with the conscientious objection is that it does not happen in a vacuum. Doctors and healthcare workers are social beings that interact with each other. This means that workers who would morally not object are indirectly coerced into objecting. We must look beyond the law to see how the legislation affects reality.
So if Meloni follows through with her promises, we can expect that abortion will be even more difficult to access.
Moving away from Meloni herself, paying attention to her entourage is essential. Her carefully chosen men and women point toward the rocky road Italian politics is entering. With a party-wide recurring unwillingness to celebrate the 25th of April, the day of Italy’s liberation from fascism, the country is seen to be moving closer to the far-right.
The previously mentioned minister of Family, Natality, and Equal Opportunities is Eugenia Roccella, who openly claims that abortion is not a right. Senator and vice-president of the Senate, Maurizio Gasparri, has already put forward a legislative proposal to recognize the rights of the fetus. It proposes to modify the Civic Code to anticipate the acquisition of legal capacity, which is currently given at the moment of birth. This could lead to a downward spiral toward making abortion illegal. Another proposal is to institutionalize a ‘Day of the Unborn’.
Moreover, the government’s opposition, made up of ten different parties, is divided. Matteo Renzi, ex-prime minister and leader of the liberal party Italia Viva, voted against Meloni’s government in the Senate. His speech, however, was devoted to attacking other parties in the opposition (mainly the Democratic Party) as much as to attacking the government itself. When it comes to fundamental rights, the opposition must unite against the prospect of the erosion of such.
In this climate, it is difficult to believe Meloni’s promise to maintain abortion as a right.
Meloni’s strategy of saying she is simply applying the already-existing legislation is a smart, intricate political move. It is unlikely that new legislation banning abortion will be introduced, as this would be met by strong popular protests similar to those in Poland. In applying the law, however, she would achieve the same result of greatly restricting the already-difficult access to abortion. Because the EU has mixed views on abortion rights and the law is not actually changing, it is unlikely the EU will intervene in this case.
There are already some forms of grassroots initiatives, such as Obiezione Respinta, where women can share information on their experience in a given hospital or pharmacy trying to access contraceptives. Such initiatives and popular dissent may be Italy’s only way of ensuring the retainment of abortion rights.