Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Abortion Politics, Women's Movements, and the Democratic StateA Comparative Study of State Feminism$

Dorothy McBride Stetson

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780199242665

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0199242666.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 24 November 2017

Debates and Controversies on Abortion in Italy

Debates and Controversies on Abortion in Italy

(p.181) 9 Debates and Controversies on Abortion in Italy
Abortion Politics, Women's Movements, and the Democratic State

Marina Calloni

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The debate over legalization of abortion dominated politics in Italy in the 1970s, part of a broader challenge to Catholic domination over families and women. Subsequent debates have revolved around efforts to overturn legal abortion. Unlike other countries, the abortion issue split the radical feminists from the rest of the movement that had to turn to allies in the parties and unions of the left to promote women's rights to abortion. The early debates occurred before Italy had established women's policy agencies. Only in the 1990s, when the issue of in vitro fertilization stimulated pro‐life deputies to protect the foetus through restrictive laws, could the movement count on even marginal state support for keeping the 1978 compromise law on the books.

Keywords:   abortion law, alliances, Catholic church, in vitro fertilization, Italy, pro‐life deputies, radical feminism, women's movement, women's policy agencies


The legal history of procurato aborto (procured abortion) in Italy reflects the different and conflicting legal codes and cultures that have ruled Italy. During the Roman Republic, abortion was not considered as a crime but only as an ‘immoral act’. The fetus was determined to be an integral part of the ‘mother's viscera’. During the imperial age, in the second and third century, emperors Antoninus Pius and Septimius Severus introduced a legislative ‘restriction’ regarding abortion because it was considered as an offence against the pater‐familias who could be deprived of an heir. During Giustiniano's empire (528–65) abortion started to be persecuted as a crime, as stated in the Digesto (no. 498, 8, fr. 8)—a systematic collection concerning issues of Roman law—reflecting the increasing moral influence of Christian doctrine according to which the fetus was God's creature.1

Christian doctrine thus became the dominant framework for religion, jurisprudence, and the state. In the Middle Ages, abortion started to be condemned as culpable homicide and punished according to canon law. The fetus was in fact considered as a person, meaning a body supplied with a soul. Yet this question was the ‘big issue’ precisely because the soul was supposed to be the part connecting a human being with God also after his or her death. The soul was thus connected with the idea of having a life and being a person. However, the Church adopted over centuries two different approaches to this question: the idea of immediate animation and that of late animation (Sardi 1975; Tettamanzi 1975). While under the former idea, supported by the Popes Sisto V and Gregory XIV in the sixteenth century, the fetus is considered as having from the beginning a life or a soul, under the latter, supported by Pope Innocent III, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the fetus is considered as having a life or (p.182) a soul only when the quickening of the fetus can be felt. This second interpretation derives from Aristotle's philosophy, which states that a male fetus acquires a soul 40 days after his conception while a female fetus obtains hers 80 days after. Yet in 1869 Pope Pius IX chose definitively, on the basis of the new dogma of the ‘immaculate conception’ of Mary, the version of the immediate animation of the fetus. Since then, the Catholic Church has espoused the protection of human life from its conception. Indeed, in modern times as well legislation has indicated very clearly the connection made by the state between public codes and private morality. In 1532 Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, stated in Carolina, the criminal code that he promoted, that abortion was homicide and was therefore to be prosecuted. This law was extended to all his domains.

All these traditions became embodied in the Italian nation state which was created in 1871 with Rome as its capital. The first national Italian penal code, adopted in 1889, condemned abortion as a crime. Later, in 1930, during the Fascist regime (1924–44), a new penal code, the Codice Rocco (Rocco Code), came into force. Abortion was included in Arts 545–51 as one of ‘the crimes against the continuity, integrity and health of the race’, one of the means the regime used to increase the ‘population’, meaning the ‘race’. In addition to prohibiting abortion, the state provided incentives for women to have as many children as possible. This pro‐natalist policy coincided with the long‐standing position of the Catholic Church (Palini 1977).

Public policy debates on abortion in Italy reflect these Roman, Christian, and Fascist traditions as well as contemporary effects of social change, especially in women's roles, since World War II. In 1946, Italy became a republic after a popular referendum, and women were for the first time recognized as citizens having political rights (Zincone 1992; Bimbi and Dal Re 1997; Commissione per le Pari Opportunità, 1998). On 1 January 1948 a democratic constitution came into force. Nevertheless, many Fascist laws remained on the books, including Art. 547 of the Rocco Code stating ‘a woman, who commits an abortion, can be sentenced from one up to four years of imprisonment’.

Throughout the post‐World War II period, Italy has continued to have a Catholic culture in which the pope, although technically head of another state, is very influential in public issues and national policies. At the same time, the period has been marked by strong social movements and left‐wing parties, especially the Communist Party. These powerful forces have struggled over a variety of social reforms affecting women, including family law reform and reproductive rights. The cases discussed in this chapter reflect deep economic and cultural upheavals in Italian society, the changing role of the women's movements, and the transformation of public opinion over the years. In 1978, abortion was partly decriminalized and legally recognized by law no. 194, titled ‘Norme per la Tutela Sociale della Maternità e sull'Interruzione Volontaria della Gravidanza’ (Norms for the Social Protection of Motherhood and about the (p.183) Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy). Note that legal abortion is referred to in Italian as Interruzione Volontaria della Gravidanza (IVG).

Since then, as in other countries, debates about abortion have revolved around efforts to overturn or defend legal abortion. Women's movements and feminists, both activists and theorists, have participated in all these debates in important, yet ambivalent, ways. The beginning of the abortion struggle, aimed mostly at its decriminalization, signified a sort of ‘emancipation’ of the feminist movement from the traditional left‐wing parties. The women's movement therefore reacted in two different ways: one sector stressed a radical and anti‐institutional position, while the other decided to continue to work within political parties, institutionalizing gender policies. This constitutive ambivalence of the Italian women's movement has characterized the last three decades, challenging the idea of a unified approach to women's rights. After parliamentary approval of the law in 1978, the major interest of women, in both movements and political parties, became the defence of legal abortion. They have not been unified, however, as throughout these struggles the radical feminist wing has criticized law no. 194 as a product of what it calls a ‘state compromise’ against women.

Women's policy agencies did not appear in Italian governments until the mid‐1980s, and thus did not participate in the debates surrounding the legalization of abortion. The first agency, Commissione per le Pari Opportunità fra Uomini e Donne (Commission for Equal Opportunity between Men and Women), which was instituted in 1984 (Guadagnini 1987) steered clear of the issue, reflecting different political and moral beliefs among commissioners regarding abortion. This situation changed after 1996 in the first post‐war governments not dominated by the Democrazia Cristiana (DC, Christian Democratic Party). The centre‐leftist ‘olive tree’ coalition established a Ministry for Equal Opportunities and appointed several female secretaries of state. Thanks to recommendations of the United Nations, the directives of the European Union and various UN world conferences and programmes—UNIFEM (url), Women Watch 2001 (url)—devoted to women's status, gendered issues and human rights became more accepted in Italian national policy debates, and women in government publicly defended the law on abortion.

Selection of Debates

Alongside the debates in the public arena and the various interventions of social movements, the political institutions making abortion policy were the parliament (Senate and Chamber of Deputies), popular referendums, and the government (Cabinet). Governments are always either composed of one party or coalition of parties, and, in most of the period under study, the Christian Democrats provided the leadership role. The universe of abortion policy (p.184) debates in these institutions is quite complex (Calloni 2002). Indeed, starting from the 1960s many bills for decriminalizing or for prohibiting abortion were presented in successive parliamentary sessions by MPs belonging to different and opposed political parties.2 Most of these bills were not approved, and so did not become law.

From this universe of debates, the following case studies have been selected for analysis:

  1. (1) the legalization of abortion, 1971–8;

  2. (2) the popular referendum to repeal legal abortion, 1980–1; and

  3. (3) in vitro fertilization and abortion, 1996–9.

These cases represent the decisional system: the first and the third are centred in Cabinet and Parliament, while the second occurs in the forum of a popular referendum, a crucial policy arena for social and moral issues such as abortion. In addition, they cover the range of issues over three decades. They comprise decriminalization, the initial Catholic/conservative backlash to that policy, and the questions raised about abortion by new reproductive technologies, which are, without doubt, the crucial steps in the formulation of public debates on abortion in Italy. In addition, these debates indicate paradigmatically the changing dynamics between the women's movement, counter‐movements, national Parliament, and various governments. Indeed, these cases also stress the shifts in the relationship between civil society and the state over the last 30 years.

The debates drew many participants, both for and against abortion, into the political arena and civil society for the first time. They represent the controversial cosmos of the Italian policy debates and the conflicting relationships between different political and institutional organs and a more and more divided public opinion. In fact, the debates on abortion affirm a ‘bottom up’ democracy, where political institutions are forced to discuss social and gender issues, revolutionizing the previous structure of political debates, institutional proceedings, and decision‐making.

Debate 1: Decriminalizing Abortion, 1971–1978

How the Debate Came to the Public Agenda

In the 1970s the abortion issue was a part of a broader socio‐political conflict related to civic campaigns struggling against both the confessional power of the Catholic Church over society and class/patriarchal domination over women's sexuality. After the recognition of their political rights in 1946, Italian women, mostly belonging to trade unions and the communist or socialist parties, had started new campaigns for promoting socio‐economic rights and different (p.185) reproductive policies (Ravera 1979). Work and family were central issues in women's political debates from the 1950s on. By the 1970s, a decade characterized by major change in Italian society in the family and female identity (Caldwell 1991; Ginsborg 1998; Barbagli and Chiaraceno 1997), public debates on specific laws concerning gender relations increased.

The first ‘revolution’ in Italian family law was legal divorce (Disciplina nei casi di scioglimento del matrimonio, law no. 898, 1‐12‐1970). The struggle over divorce reform emphasized the secular/leftist and Catholic/conservative split in Italian society and stressed the difference between law, morality, and religious belief.3 The abortion debate also coincided with approval of a general reform of family law in 1975 overturning previous discriminatory articles contained in the civil law of 1942 which were based on the principle of the patria potestas (father's authority). The new family law acknowledged equal rights and duties for women and men and the possibility for children born either outside marriage or to parents married to other people to be recognized as legitimate by their biological fathers or mothers.

A third area of reform during this period was the development of family planning. The use of contraceptives became a public issue while the Catholic Church continued to impede it—which it still does. However, in 1975 law no. 405, referring to constitutional Arts 31 and 32, established consultori familiari (family consulting centres), reforming the previous National Health Service (Francescato and Prezza 1979). They have four main aims: socio‐psychological assistance for women and men, protection of motherhood, family planning, and information about the use of contraceptive methods. For the first time the concept of ‘responsible procreation, with respect to ethical convictions and physical integrity of the users’ was introduced in the Italian legal system (Calloni 1998). Moreover, the use and propagation of information about contraception were not only allowed but this issue became one of the main tasks of the new health public structures.

The first bill designed to decriminalize therapeutic abortion was submitted to Parliament in 1971 by a socialist MP, Loris Fortuna. The proposal immediately raised constitutional questions since abortion was a crime; and it was submitted to the Constitutional Court for a ruling.4 However, in 1975, in response to a specific case, the Court declared that Art. 546 of the Rocco Code, which criminalized abortion, was unconstitutional because it did not allow a woman voluntarily to interrupt her pregnancy—that is, to seek an abortion—in cases where the pregnancy would be dangerous, as certified by a doctor, to her health or life (Corte Costituzionale Italiana 1976).

This decision opened the way for advocates of reform to move ahead with proposals for a new abortion law. This new consideration of abortion was helped by changes in the party composition of the Italian Parliament. Of special importance was the increasing power of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), (p.186) whose moderate leader, Enrico Berlinguer, introduced the idea of a possible compromesso storico (historic compromise) in Italy and euro‐communism in Europe. In the national election on 20 June 1976, the PCI received 34.4 per cent of the votes, while the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) 9.6 per cent. Sixty‐four women—6.7 per cent of the total—were elected to Parliament. The Christian Democrats remained the dominant party, but this new political scenario permitted a pro‐reform coalition. Communists, socialists, social democrats, and liberals reached an agreement and unified their different proposals in a single text.

Dominant Frame of the Debate

Initial discussions of abortion reform were part of a more general process of modernization of social relations, especially concerning the status of women in the family and society. Left‐wing and radical parties initiated parliamentary debates, sustained by activists from the newly energized women's movement. Meanwhile the Constitutional Court provided the first official framing of the abortion reform issue. The 1975 ruling confirmed both the legitimacy of therapeutic abortions and the priority of the diritto alla salute (right to health) of the mother, who is a born person, over that of the fetus, which has yet to be born. Politicians like Giovanni Berlinguer, doctor and spokesperson in Parliament on behalf of reform, supported the proposal in order to eliminate back‐street abortions, reduce inconsistencies in the law, offer social and health assistance to women, and develop new policies for family planning.

Gendering the Debate

In Italy the growing debate on abortion was quite similar to what was occurring in other European countries in the 1970s when abortion become a prominent issue on the political agenda of many governments and a cause for mass mobilization. Many considered it to be mainly a political fight against the state and its undemocratic structure. Yet the debate on abortion also permitted the emergence of new female identities, the recognition of the centrality of women as a political subject, and the affirmation of feminism as a public discourse.

Since the inception of the debate on abortion, the actions and strategies of women's movement groups and feminists were mainly aimed at decriminalizing abortion and constructing a women‐friendly society against patriarchal culture. Yet many of them did not agree with legislation which was supported and later voted for by radical and left‐wing parties. This diversification among feminist collectives became evident during the 1970s.

Rivolta Femminile was the first example of a feminist collective which took a public position on abortion in 1971 (Rivolta Femminile 1971; Lonzi 1974). The Movimento per la Liberazione della Donna (MLD), later related to the Radical (p.187) Party and the Fronte Italiano di Liberazione Femminile, connected to the Lega dei Diritti dell'Uomo, initiated their pro‐abortion activities in the early 1970s. The Radical Party played a central role in the campaigns, together with the MLD and Rivolta Femminile. At the time the PCI was devoted to more conventional issues connected to the emancipation of women, like education, work, and health, rather than reproductive rights. However, its women's wing—Unione Donne Italiane (UDI) (Ravera 1979)—started a strong debate within the PCI in support the new issues on reproduction (Pieroni Bortolotti 1963, 1978; Frabotta 1975, 1976).

In February 1971 the MLD started its action for decriminalizing abortion and the use of contraceptives. Many lawyers and doctors became activists supporting these campaigns. Women initiated a plan to confess to having had an abortion (Faccio 1975a, b), a tactic which started in France with the Manifesto published by the Nouvel Observateur in 1971 (Associazione ‘Choisir’ 1974). Illegal centres, like the Centro Italiano per l'Aborto e la Sterilizzazione, were promoted for helping women, increasing self‐help methods (Gruppo Femminista per una Medicina della Donna 1976). Other groups of women started to organize travel abroad for women to countries like Switzerland and Great Britain, where abortion was allowed.

On 22 February 1973 the Collettivo Femminista Milanese based in Via Cherubini 8 published a leaflet demanding the abrogation of all punitive laws against abortion and the creation of an autonomous women's organization. This document was crucial because it signified the beginning of the radical critique of traditional left‐wing parties by feminists and extra‐parliamentary groups like Lotta Continua, Il Manifesto (Rossanda 1978) and Potere Operaio. Meanwhile Lotta Femminile (Feminine Struggle) changed its name to Lotta Femminista (Feminist Struggle) and the numbers of new feminist collectives grew exponentially in many cities, in both north and south Italy.

As reconstructed by the Libreria delle Donne di Milano in 1987, ‘the auto‐coscienza groups had very valid reasons for keeping their distance from the Radical Party mobilization . . . When we talked about abortion among ourselves, we discovered how varied experiences were, depending on our different social locations’ (Milan Women's Bookstore Collective 1990: 61). The legalization of abortion was considered another way for patriarchal society to dominate once again the body of women, as stressed by the feminist magazine Sottosopra. The proposal was for an abandonment of a ‘sexual culture, which legitimizes the existing procreative structure’. ‘Abortion is any solution for a free woman’, because ‘woman continued to be colonized by the patriarchal system’ (Chinese et al. 1977: 122).

(p.188) Policy Outcome

Seven years after the beginning of the feminist debate, there were divisions over abortion policy among feminists, political parties, and even Catholic groups. Finally, in January 1977, with the support of the centre and left‐wing parties, the Chamber of Deputies approved a reform bill. However, it had to be approved also by the Senate, a chamber with similar multiparty representation. The divisions among protagonists continued. Leaders of the UDI, the PCI's women's organization, began to mobilize in support of the bill in the Senate. They were joined by feminists in the Radical Party and Democrazia Proletaria despite their doubts about the proposal. On the other side, pro‐life and Catholic doctors, lawyers (Unione Giuristi Cattolici Italiani 1975), and activists of Comunione e Liberazione and Movimento per la Vita (MpV) (Pirovano 1981) reinforced their campaigns. Not all Catholics opposed the bill, many supporting women's freedom to choose (Gozzini 1978). The situation on the street became very tense, and police intervened in demonstrations on many occasions. In the Senate, female politicians played a fundamental role in working for a ‘quick approval of the law’ and overcoming the parliamentary obstructionism of both Catholic Democrats and the neo‐Fascist party (Movimento Sociale Italiano). The Senate rejected the first bill and the reformers had to start again with a new text in the Chamber and submit it to the Senate. The struggle continued for another year. After many consultations and compromises, a law on IVG finally passed on 22 May 1978.

The 1978 law did not remove abortion from the criminal code, but it did establish a number of conditions under which legal abortions were permitted:

A woman can be administered a voluntary interruption of pregnancy by the first 90 days of her pregnancy, when circumstances can prevent the continuation of her pregnancy, birth, mothering/motherhood and put in serious danger her physical or mental health, in relation to her health state, economical/ social/ family conditions, circumstances in which the conception has happened, expectations of anomalies or malformations by the conceived. The woman can turn to a public consulting structure, a socio‐medical structure, fully licensed by a region, or to a physician in attendance. (Art. 4, law no. 194)

There is a conscience provision giving doctors opposed to performing abortion the right to decline to participate (Martini and Dell'Osso 1979). Due to the fact that abortion was ‘limited’ once again by a law, some autonomous feminists and the Radical Party demanded national referendums in 1975–8 to repeal the articles (nos 546, 547, 548, 549.2, 550, 551, 552, 553, 554, 555) criminalizing abortion. Yet this request was not considered valid by the Ufficio Centrale per il Referendum (ordinance 26‐5‐1978) because of the existence of the law no. 194 which allowed abortion under specific constitutional restrictions.

(p.189) Women's Movement Impact

Eight years after the beginning of feminist claims, institutional quarrels, and mass mobilization, the first phase of the abortion debate came successfully at an end, thanks to the support of left‐wing political parties, women's movements, and a sector of civil society. In this case the women's movement was successful through its public mobilization and influence on parliamentary debates. Members of the women's movements—the leftists and the autonomous movements—worked closely with reform supporters in Parliament as well as providing a background of grass‐roots support through street demonstrations. Women, as individuals, in parties, and in feminist groups, were active in the debate and were accepted by the political parties as legitimate participants on the abortion issue. This was facilitated by the fact that the abortion reform issue was defined as a question of women's health and psycho‐physical integrity.

The policy outcome placed abortion reform among the new policies adopted in the 1970s regarding women's health and social issues. Yet the result—the achievement of a parliamentary statute—did not realise the aim of the radical wing of the autonomous feminist movement. On the one hand, it wanted the total decriminalization of abortion, while on the other it did not recognize the legitimacy of a law seen as a ‘political—and patriarchal—compromise’. Recognizing that while the abortion reform was an improvement over the 1930 punitive law coinciding with demands of sectors of the movement, it did not achieve the goals of many radical and separatist feminists to liberate women completely from state control. For these reasons this first debate is classified as a dual response.

Women's Movement Characteristics

The abortion debate of the 1970s coincided with the emergence and growth of the women's movement in Italy. A dominant feature of the movement in this period was the split between activists in political parties and trade unions on the one hand and autonomous feminists in various collectives on the other. The party movement was very close to the left while the autonomous groups were openly critical and separate. Abortion was a high‐priority issue for both wings, but for different reasons. The Marxist approach to the class struggle was radicalized through the critique of a patriarchal society and male domination (Spagnoletti 1978). Autonomous feminist groups radicalized the issue of self‐determination starting from the praxis of autocoscienza, the affirmation of sexual freedom and the necessity for self‐control of reproduction (Bono and Kemp 1991). The ‘repossession’ of the body became the basis for a new female subjectivity and the discovery of the ‘unconscious'. Thus there were many splits in feminist groups, who agreed only on the necessity to decriminalize abortion while they disagreed among themselves about many other issues, beginning (p.190) with the possibility of promoting a liberal law in Parliament. Thus the cohesion of the movements on the abortion issue was sorely tested (Ergas 1992, 1996). Activists faced solid Christian Democratic institutional opposition but a relatively weak grass‐roots counter‐movement.

Policy Environment

The policy‐making sub‐system in this first debate was moderately closed. It was based on strict party organization, yet insider activists were supported by free agents, like feminists and members of social groups, to reach the common aim of the abortion campaigns. In this way, the abortion debate altered the previous institutional structure of parliamentary organizations, and new links between political parties and social movements became crucial to the policy‐making process.

Giulio Andreotti was the Prime Minister leading his fourth government in the VII Legislature (1976–9), composed only of Christian Democrat MPs, with left‐wing parties in the opposition. New forms of coalitions among different parties were needed for reaching a majority in the Chamber of Deputies as well as in the Senate to approve the law, creating a sort of sub‐system. At this time women's representatives were not strong enough to lead this struggle on their own, so that the parliamentary debates were conducted mainly by male MPs. Left‐wing parties' networks supported specific requests of the feminist movement regarding the liberalization of abortion. Yet, with the exception of the Radical Party, they rejected radical versions and searched for an ‘acceptable’ compromise. Leftists, especially the PCI, were criticized by many of their activists because of their too centralized and hierarchical structure. However, at the end of the debate the common goal was obtained.

Debate 2: Popular Referendum to Repeal Legal Abortion, 1980–1981

How the Debate Came to the Public Agenda

The second debate involves the attempt by pro‐life forces (Liverani 1979; Lombardi Valluari 1976) to abrogate the abortion law by means of a referendum.5 The approval of law no. 194 in 1978 did not bridge the deep social divisions over abortion. On the contrary, the law left much discontent and many seemingly unresolvable questions. Based on proposals from the Catholics and the Radicals, the 1981 referendums offered voters the opportunity both to restrict and to liberalize the law. This section focuses on the proposal to restrict the law because this was by far the more important debate for the women's movement (Damiani and Graziosi 1981).

(p.191) In the Libro bianco sull'aborto (White Book on Abortion), published in 1977, Christian Democrats in the Chamber of Deputies called abortion a ‘tragedy for the Italian conscience’. This book (Gruppo Democratico Cristiano alla Camera dei Deputati 1977) collected all documents related to parliamentary debates in Legislatures VI (1972–6) and VII (1976–9) on abortion, reporting the reactions and speeches of interested MPs. These documents confirm how parliamentary debates reflected the increasing tension between the state, the government, and civil society. As soon as constitutionally permitted, those groups unhappy with the 1978 abortion reform proposed nullifying referendums to change it. By 1980 there were seven different referendum requests: four by the Radical Party (Passeri and Pergameno 1981) to remove restrictions and three by the Christian Democrats in collaboration with the pro‐life movement to prevent the institutionalization of a system of legal abortion.6

The maximal proposal was intended to completely erase the law while the minimal proposal was intended modify it in a restrictive way. The contents of these proposals were similar in their reference to the protection of the unborn (Busnelli 1988), defined as human life since its conception. The Constitutional Court rejected the maximal proposal presented by the MpV (sentence no. 26, 10 February 1981) because it would have meant the total abrogation of law no. 194, which had been previously judged as constitutionally sound and legally enacted. Therefore, only the minimal proposal aimed at reducing the impact of the law was submitted to the voters. It would reject the principle of the women's self‐determination and permit abortion only for therapeutic reasons, giving the physician the power to make the decision.

Dominant Frame of the Debate

At the end of the first debate, the frame of the abortion issue was gendered, based on the notion of women's prior needs. According to this frame, abortion law should place a woman's life and health before that of the fetus, and the state had to be involved by providing information, social services, and assistance to women. Once the law was enacted, providing abortion services became a legitimate responsibility of the state. In presenting their referendum proposal, the Christian Democrats and their pro‐life allies sought to change the frame of the debate by advancing the interests of the fetus and countering the view that assisting women to obtain abortions was a legitimate state function. Their position was that the fetus is a person who must be protected.

Pro‐life Catholics launched a major campaign to convince people to vote affirmatively for restricting the law. Against these campaigns, those parties which had sponsored the 1978 law—in particular Socialists, Communists, and Liberals—and sectors of the women's movement organized initiatives for defeating the referendums. This was necessary despite their fear that, after the (p.192) years of exhausting debates and negotiations that preceded the 1978 law, the hard‐won compromise would be thrown aside by a new conflict on this hot topic in Italian civil and political society.

Gendering the Debate

Their success in 1978 meant that advocates for women had to shift their use of gender topics from seeking to change a law by gendering an ungendered debate to using gender to defend an existing law. This task was made even more difficult because of the split between the movement and a section of radical feminists who supported another referendum to achieve total decriminalization of abortion. Since the pro‐life referendum involved all citizens qualified to vote, the main strategies of women activists were directed toward persuading public opinion to vote ‘no’. They organized a strong mass mobilization on various fronts in the public arena. The separatist wing of feminism maintained its distance from the institutional process of referendums, continuing to be critical of the law as a whole. In general, however, the women's movement found new energy for representing the public defence of the abortion law as a gender issue and the fruit of women's struggles (De Musso and Pasotti 1989).

Policy Outcome

Seventy‐nine per cent of qualified electors voted on 17 and 18 May 1981, resulting in a defeat for all referendums. The defeat was crushing for the pro‐life Catholics: more than 60 per cent voted against, with 32 per cent in favour and 7.7 per cent blank or invalid votes.7 Thus, the Italian electorate confirmed the legitimacy of legal abortion and law no. 194 remained in force. Abortion would be covered by national insurance but, first, new health services and family planning centres had to be constructed. The positive outcome, arising from the negative results of the referendums, illustrated the necessity to reinforce welfare services in all Italian regions—the difference between northern and southern Italy was quite strong also regarding family planning.

The debate and the outcome of the referendums revealed the increasing polarization in Italian society and a decisive transformation in the Catholic movement and party. Many Catholics now had to admit the reality of a new society and female identity. Christian Democracy was the majority party in power, but it was forced to apply a legitimate law it bitterly opposed. The pro‐abortion vote was evidence of the growing political and cultural opposition to the Christian Democratic political hegemony that had prevailed since 1948.

After two defeats—the approval of the law and the failure of the referendum—Catholics realized that they had to reframe their approach to changing Italian society by reconceptualizing the theory and strategy based upon the ‘culture of human life’ (Casini and Quarenghi 1981; Palo 1977; Traverso; Galli 1978). (p.193) Consequently some theological assumptions were redefined in the shift from the pontificate of Paul VI, who wrote the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 (Paolo VI 1968), to that of John Paul II, who initiated a persistent campaign against abortion using a new language: ‘absolute respect of human life from its conception’ (Caprile 1981). This new theological, communicative, and cultural transformation also reflected the fact that there was no longer a general agreement even among Catholics about divorce, abortion, and the family (Zarri 1981), so that new strategies were needed for recomposing the Catholic doctrine. Therefore, while feminist/women's movements continued their usual action in support of abortion, the Catholic Church was reframing its cultural strategies for fighting legal abortion (Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede 1974, 1987; Fiori and Sgreggia 1975).

Movement Impact

The end of the debate coincided with the goals of the activists who supported the new pro‐abortion law campaign. The policy outcome of the referendum concerned not only the protection of the abortion law but mainly the perspective of increasing social services connected to health and gender issues. Indeed, the results of the referendum stressed indirectly not only the legitimacy of the law but mainly the necessity to apply it, following its directives. Campaigns against the referendums became in fact for women occasions for discussing the necessity to implement the existing law. The women's movement activists felt stronger after this confirmation by the public acceptance of a topical gendered issue aimed at increasing socio‐economic rights. Women also participated actively in the referendum debate. The movement showed its ability to mobilize people and resources to overcome the pro‐life campaigns of MpV. Thus, as a result of the debate on the pro‐life referendum, the movement achieved a dual response from the state.

The debate also meant the establishment of a new socio‐political force in opposition to legal abortion. Therefore, the law had to be defended. The liberalization of laws on divorce, family law, contraception, and abortion did not have the catastrophic effect on Italian society foretold by the opponents of these measures (Sanna 1989). And although the counter‐movement had lost the referendum campaign, it had been successful in changing the frame of the debate on abortion in Italy by introducing the very powerful slogan: ‘protection of human life since the conception’. The women's movement would ultimately have to face this new challenge.

Women's Movement Characteristics

During the second debate, both women's movements—socialist/communist and radical/separatist—were in the growth stage. They were successful in the (p.194) face of a strong and cohesive counter‐movement with roots in the dominant Christian Democratic Party and Catholic Church. The non‐autonomous wing remained closely allied with left‐wing parties and made the defeat of the pro‐life referendum a top priority. This campaign, however, was the last political action of Italian feminism as a mass movement in coalition with left‐wing parties. While this referendum campaign demonstrated the increasing capacity of women for public mobilization, at the same time it marked a change in the politics of mass feminism. Indeed, after this referendum the women's movement disappeared from the piazze (Valentini 1997), that is, from the public arena, for years.

After 1981, differentiation among women according to their beliefs, practices, theories, and political engagement became more and more evident and relevant. Many radical feminists left the debate disappointed at the ‘bad compromise’ that, for them, codified the state's control over the female body and denied women's self‐determination and individual freedom. Feminists, such as Libreria delle Donne di Milano and Diotima collectives, started to elaborate theories and practices within closed, separated, and restricted groups, so that a distinction between ‘thought and life’ (Rossi‐Doria 1996) became quite visible. The ambivalence and tensions developed within women's movements between a defence of the law and its critique (Peretti and Socrate 1988) characterized the 1980s.

Policy Environment

The policy sub‐system connected with referendums was open to widespread participation. Other than the need to gain approval from the Constitutional Court, social movements were free to express their policy goals, promoting activities and mobilizing people to prohibit abortion on behalf of the unborn, to defend the law, or to decriminalize abortion altogether. At the time of the abortion referendum (17 May 1981), Arnaldo Forlani, a Christian Democrat MP, was the prime minister, leading a coalition with the PSI, the Italian Social Democratic Party, and the Republican Party (VIII Legislature); these parties were promoters and defenders of the abortion law. At that time the political situation was very tense due to the increase in both right‐wing and left‐wing terrorism, political scandals, and corruption—as in the case of the Masonic secret lodge P2—and the attempt against the life of Pope John Paul II in May 1981.

Debate 3: In‐Vitro Fertilization and Abortion: 1996–1999

How the Debate Came to the Public Agenda

In the 20 years following the legalization of abortion, there was a decline in both legal and illegal abortions performed in Italy. Rates of legal abortion fell from (p.195) 15.9 per cent per 1,000 Italian women in 1980 to 9.3 per cent in 1998 (ISTAT 2000). Back‐street abortions, while still performed, are much reduced as well.8 Yet also the national birth rate is dramatically decreasing: 1.2 per cent, the lowest in the world with Spain (Delgado and Livi‐Bacci 1992; Sabbadini 1998) and the use of contraceptives is not increasing (Barazzetti and Leccardi 2000).

Divisions over abortion and social modernization revealed by the 1970s debates persisted into the 1990s. Pro‐life parties have incessantly promoted parliamentary bills for a radical transformation of law no. 194 and Catholic doctors in some cases have tried to obstacle the application of the low in public hospitals (Salemi 1989). Their arguments were reinforced by Pope John Paul II's theological message (Magli 1995) aiming at the absolute protection of the human life from conception, as asserted also in encyclicals like the Evaneglium Vitae about the value and inviolability of human life (Giovanni Paolo II 1995). The challenges to Catholic doctrine presented by dramatic increases in medically assisted reproduction, specifically in‐vitro fertilization (IVF), provided addition evidence to the pro‐life forces that the government needed to take action. As well, it was due to the moral‐political debate relating to the necessity to regulate IVF processes.

Unlike the debate on abortion, which started in the civil society and was later taken up in parliament, the debate on IVF began with a government bill and later became a controversial issue for public opinion. A Bill concerning Norme sull'inseminazione artificiale, la fecondazione in vitro e il trasferimento di gameti ed embrioni (Norms about artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and transferring of gametes and embryos) (no. C.1560) was announced in Parliament on 20 June 1996. Abortion opponents found the occasion an opportunity to push back the liberal abortion law. Women's organizations moved to protect women's rights. The familiar battled was waged in very new political territory. With the demise of the polarization between Communists and Christian Democrats under the change of ideologies and the growing scandal of corruption and ineptitude, all ‘old’ parties transformed their previous names, composition, and political alliances. Christians from the former DC split into several smaller often conflicting parties (PPI, UDEUR, CCD). While PPI and UDEUR joined a centre‐left coalition called Ulivo (Olive Tree), CCD allied with the renamed right‐wing Alleanza Nazionale, conservative (Forza Italia, led by Silvio Berlusconi) and separatist (Lega Nord per l'Indipendenza della Padania) parties, constituting a coalition called Polo before and Casa delle Libertà (House of the Liberties) later.

The front in favour of maintaining a liberal law on IVG and approving tolerant legislation on IVF was composed of Democratici di Sinistra (part of the former PCI), Verdi (Greens), Partito dei Comunisti Italiani, Rifondazione Comunista, and a part of the ‘gruppo misto’, a mixed parliamentary grouping of liberals, socialists, republicans, and so on.

(p.196) Dominant Frame of the Debate

The 1981 referendum had established a gendered frame for the abortion issue. However, one of the goals of the pro‐life forces was to replace that definition with an exclusive focus on the fetus. Once abortion was raised in the context of the IVF controversy, they posed the moral question of the life of embryos inside and outside the womb. While in the past the dispute between the Catholic Church, conservatives, the pro‐choice movement, left‐wing groups, and feminists concerned differences over questions of liberation and sexuality, in the 1990s the clash concerned control of the ‘reproduction of life’ (D'Orazio 1989; Rodotà 1993, 1995). The development of research in genetics, promotion of biotechnologies, discussions on bioethics, discoveries in embryology, and the possibility of maintaining the life of a fetus of five to six months also raised questions regarding the role of doctors and their potential to eliminate or select embryos.

Debate over the new parliamentary issue of abortion/IVF came to the floor of the Chamber of Deputies during the XIII Legislature. The prime minister was Romano Prodi (17 May 1996–9 October 1998), leader of the centre‐left coalition Ulivo. In March 1997 Marida Bolognesi, an MP belonging to the Democratici di Sinistra‐Ulivo, was nominated speaker and chairwoman of the Commission XII, whose task was to prepare a bill to be discussed and approved by the Chamber of Deputies. This process did not run smoothly. Eventually, Bolognesi resigned because the majority of the Chamber of Deputies approved an article of the bill which neglected the fecondazione eterologa, which meant that only gametes belonging to married couples could be used for IVF. Hon. Alessandro Cé, a Lega Nord MP, replaced Bolognesi. This created a radical shift in the composition of the Commission from a female pro‐abortion speaker in favour of a liberal IVF law to a male pro‐life conservative speaker in favour of restrictions. The result was approval on 26 May 1999 by the Chamber of Deputies of a very restrictive IVF law by 266 votes to 153 with 28 abstentions. Not only did the law restrict use of embryos; it allowed the possibility of adopting them. The debate was much more contentious in the Senate, which failed to agree on any final approval.

Gendering the Debate

This shift in the public debate toward emphasis on embryos and fetuses brought about a change in feminist discussions. Their challenge was to re‐gender the frame of the abortion debate to restore the situation of women in the discourse. Feminists and female left‐wing MPs underlined once again the necessity for women both to protect their rights and to struggle against restrictions regarding human reproduction. After many years, feminist demonstrations were back, events for reaffirming that woman has the right to ‘the first word and the last word’ regarding her reproductive decisions and life.

(p.197) At the political level women activists tried to construct a common platform for preventing a restrictive law on IVF, for avoiding the approval of any amendments which would threaten the 1978 law, and for protecting its fair application. The dispute on a restrictive law about riproduzione medicalmente assistita gave a new impulse to feminist debates. While in the 1980s women seemed unable to reconstitute a mass movement, in the 1990s they used new issues to try to find common strategies and language. They wrote new proposals for definitively removing abortion altogether from the penal code (Boccia 1993; 1995; Chiaromonte et al. 1993; Ferrajoli 1976, 1999; Pitch 1998), indicating the ambiguities of law no. 194 (Tatafiore and Tozzi 1989; D'Elia 1996) and/or criticizing radically liberal laws on abortion and reproduction at all (Diotima 1987; 1995; Cavarero 1990). A concept of diritto sessuato (gendered law) was also theorized (Democrazia e Diritto 1993; 1996).

After the approval by the Chamber of Deputies of the law on IVF, the participation of women in the abortion debate concerned also the publication of several documents and appeals (Il Foglio del Paese delle Donne 1999). These new campaigns aimed at opposing the ‘new patriarchal’ intention ‘to dominate once again the female body and to control all reproductive processes’ (Associazione Orlando 1999). Activists reaffirmed that freedom of procreation should not be arbitrarily restricted by law. For this reason the document mentioned above affirms: ‘No to the law! No to any reductive and restrictive revision of the law no. 194’.

Policy Outcome

At the beginning, the IVF bill concerned only the regulation of centres devoted to IVF and the protection of the health of patients. During the legislative debate, the bill changed from being a technical proposal to a proposition for a restrictive law with an ethical character. In fact, it had to concern only married people or ‘coppie di fatto’—stable couples living as husband and wife—medically certified infertility, adoptability of frozen embryos, the protection of the unborn (Art. 1), the moral limits of science, and the centrality of the family.

Through the debate the frame changed due to approval of amendments extraneous to the original project. Indeed, the main intent became not only an ethical restriction on IVF but also a strong attack against the abortion law. The opponents of abortion included some women who were part of the governing Olive Tree coalition. Such was case with Irene Pivetti, a Catholic, former President of the Chamber of Deputies under the Berlusconi Government, while a member of the Lega Nord; she became later president of the UDEUR, part of the former DC, which supported the centre‐left coalition. During session no. 542 on 26 May 1999, Irene Pivetti proposed an amendment to deny the right to abort a fetus produced by IVF for ethical reasons. Yet this amendment was defeated for two main (p.198) reasons: first, it was extraneous to the topic under discussion, that is, IVF; second, it implicitly abrogated law no. 194 and therefore was not constitutionally admissible.9 This indirect attack against law no. 194 was unsuccessful and therefore 194 remained in force. Still, the outcome of the debate on IVF was mixed. Although the effort to restrict abortion failed, approval of such a restrictive law by the Chamber of Deputies indicated the presence of a pro‐life majority.

Women's Movement Impact

As a result of this third debate, the state and its institutions, that is, the centre‐left government, continued to implement the 1978 abortion law. However, due to a complex and ambivalent dialectic between state, government, Parliament, and the women's movement over IVF and IVG, it is difficult to classify the debate according to the categories of movement impact. Nevertheless, if we consider only the debate on abortion—specifically, the limits on abortion proposed within the regulatory scheme for IVF—then the outcome does coincide with long‐standing movement goals to defend the law while proposing more reforms. However, given the remoteness of movement activists from the debate on IVF and abortion in parliament, there is little evidence that, when abortion was on the agenda, women as individuals, groups, or formal organizations were accepted as legitimate spokespersons on the issue. Thus, this case is classified as pre‐emption.

Women's Policy Agency Activities

At the time of the third debate there were three women's policy agencies at the national level in Italy. The members of the Commission for Equal Opportunities are appointed by the prime minister for a five‐year term. The Commission is charged with furthering equality and equal opportunities between women and men and is cross‐sectional. The Equal Status Committee specializes in equality issues at work and is located within the Ministry of Labour. Both agencies were established in the 1980s. In 1996, the prime minister established a Ministry for Equal Opportunities, in compliance with the UN Platform for Action adopted at the 1995 Beijing Conference. Hon. Anna Finocchiaro, a lawyer by training and a feminist, was appointed for the first time as a secretary of state.

In 1999, Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, former speaker of the PCI, appointed Laura Balbo, professor of sociology, former MP and feminist, as Secretary for Equal Opportunities, one of seven women secretaries of state in the D'Alema Government: Interior, Health, Culture, Regional Affairs, Social Affairs, and European Policies. The parliamentary debates on IVF took place when two centre‐left governments were in power, the Ministry for Equal Opportunities was established, and femocrats started to be involved in the design of gender‐oriented policies.

(p.199) Under both Anna Finocchiaro and Laura Balbo, the Ministry took a stand in defence of the abortion law. On the other hand, the Commission for Equal Opportunities, headed by former Christian Democrat Hon. Silvia Costa, did not express public support for either abortion or IVF. In fact, however, both gender‐oriented institutions were more interested in the elaboration of broader gender policies, developing international directives, and organizing awareness campaigns. They introduced some new gender issues in the public arena, aimed at stressing and bringing on to the political agenda questions and concepts belonging to women's experiences and the history of Italian feminism (Ingrao and Peretti 1998) in the light of international debates regarding women's rights, empowerment, and mainstreaming. Therefore, the two secretaries of state at the Ministry for Equal Opportunities supported the two main cores of the feminist tradition: on the one hand the theory of sexual difference, conceived as the basic distinction between women and men, as theorized by the political and radical feminism of the 8os; on the other the theory of double presence, which means the possibility of combining work and family, according to a conception of equality, as traditionally supported by the left.

Women's policy agencies did not, however, promote a women's coalition in Parliament to oppose new gender restrictive laws. These agencies played a marginal role in the debate on IVF.

Women's Movement Characteristics

The characteristics of the women's movement at time of the debate on IVF were quite different from those during the previous controversies on abortion in Italy. Indeed, a strong autonomous feminist movement no longer existed. Although feminists organized demonstrations, they had lost their capacity to mobilize public support. Rather, the movement was at the consolidation stage as, with increases in the number of women secretaries of state, femocrats, and feminist advisers, gender issues and concepts became part of the state.

Abortion was no longer a priority issue. Yet one thing had not changed: women's organizations and feminist groups were split again between a radical critique and a strong defence of the law on abortion, and the non‐radicals were close to the left‐wing parties. The influence of the women's movement was limited to the defence of an existing law; it did not extend to blocking a new restrictive pro‐life law on assisted procreation. The main reason was the strong counter‐movement led by a cross‐parties alliance between Catholics—some of whom were member of the coalition in government—and conservatives in the Chamber of Deputies. In the debate on abortion and IVF, the pro‐life groups were composed of Catholics and conservatives belonging to both opposition and government parties.

(p.200) Policy Environment

The policy sub‐system in Parliament was closed and left‐wing/feminist public opinion was unable to change the strategies of the pro‐life majority in the Chamber of Deputies. As mentioned above, due to political scandals connected to public corruption which characterized Italian society in the early 1990s, the political environment and parties' composition changed dramatically in this decade. A government led by Silvio Berlusconi from 10 May 1994 to 22 December 1994 in the XII Legislature (1994–6) was ousted after a national election by a centre‐left coalition, Olive Tree. Romano Prodi became prime minister, serving from 15 May 1996 to 9 October 1998. Yet at the same time the number of female MPs fell in both the Chambers of Deputies and the Senate. They amounted to 9 per cent in 1992; 13.1 per cent in 1994, when a quota system was adopted but later rejected by the Constitutional Court as unconstitutional; and 10.3 per cent in 1996. After a government crisis, Massimo D'Alema became Prime Minister on 21 October 1998, serving until 18 December 1999 (first Cabinet) and from 22 December 1999 until 19 April 2000 (second Cabinet), when he was replaced by Giuliano Amato (25 April 2000–12 May 2001), who belonged also to the Ulivo, because of problems within the Olive Tree coalition.

However, this new political situation—the existence of a centre‐left coalition—led to a sort of paradox. In fact, from the mid‐1990s gender and family issues found institutional recognition in ministries and commissions, but at the same time the issue of abortion and human reproduction became again a topical public question and was seriously challenged in Parliament. Indeed, the centre‐left government included both former communists and Catholics who were pro‐life and in favour of strict control over IVF. Therefore, any cultural‐moral cohesion was impossible even in the Cabinet.


In the 1970s the issue of abortion was related to the struggle against the state which treated abortion as a crime. Therefore, social actors demanded either its decriminalization or a more favourable law. In the 1980s the question concerned a state which allowed abortion but permitted it either in a too restrictive way—as the Radicals and radical feminists argued—or in a too permissive manner—as the pro‐life Catholics claimed. Therefore social actors challenged the law and the state from two opposite sides and ideological convictions.

Without any doubt, the debate on abortion in Italy has played a crucial role for decades in changing Italian society, transforming politics and contributing to a new female consciousness. The civic campaigns, the autocoscienza groups and the mass mobilization in support of reproductive freedom were a fundamental step in the affirmation of post‐conventional women's identity (Pattis 1995). (p.201) For the first time in the history of the Italian Republic, women developed an original discourse, becoming influential in public campaigns and mass demonstrations, mobilizing public opinion, constituting networks, and forming lobbies. Moreover, women became a pressure group in the public arena, promoting petitions and projects to be discussed by MPs.

In particular, female MPs tried to find among the different groups a common basis for agreement on a law. Yet traditional politics were radically questioned and abortion caused a split among feminist groups. Over the years this fracture provoked both a theoretical and a pragmatic distinction between separatist and anti‐institutionalist feminists—against a quota system and equal opportunities—referring to a radical interpretation of the ‘teoria della differenza sessuale’ (Muraro 1988; Bono and Kemp, 1991; Sottosopra 1983; 1996). Some feminist groups were based on the autocoscienza (Memoria 1987, 1989; Melchiori 1995; Lapis 1998; Paolozzi and Leiss 1999), while others opted for institutional parties (Ravera 1979) and the doppia presenza (Balbo et al. 1983; Beccalli 1984).

However, in the 1980s the conflict over abortion led to a paradox: it helped to build a conscious, strong, and post‐conventional ‘female identity’ but it was not able to reinforce the unity of the women's movement. On the contrary, it was one of the main reasons for the split of the feminist movement into distinct groups. Yet the 1980s are crucial for the development of social policies, which started to take into account the presence, interest, and needs of a ‘political gendered subjectivity’.

After the approval of law no. 194, the women's movement, left‐wing parties, and feminists became ‘reactive’ whenever the law was endangered and tried to defend it, as happened with the pro‐life referendum in 1981 and the debate for a restrictive IVF law in 1996–9. Italian women still seem to be united in the defence of the abortion law, even though a better implementation of it has been often requested and some limits of it were indicated. However, an ‘embryo’ of ‘state feminism’ has emerged since the establishment of a Ministry for Equal Opportunities in 1996 and the engagement of female researchers and activists in many commissions and working groups. This new step of the women's movement has been considered to be a shift from policies based on the ‘protection’ of women to the ‘mainstreaming’ politics and policy as stated by law no. 125 (1992) regarding a new meaning of equal opportunities and the introduction of gender issues in decision making and parliamentary bills. At the end of the 1990s formal and informal networks of feminist workers, scholars, politicians, and activists are increasing in number and working together in common, often not‐for‐profit projects in NGOs, civil society and political institutions.


(1) The oldest Christian document which explicitly condemns abortion is the Didaché, the doctrine of the twelve apostles, probably written in the first century (Sgreggia 1974).

(2) The bills from Senate (S) and Chamber of Deputies (C) in this universe are: V Legislature (1968–72): S.754, S.351, C.1313, S2020; VI Legislature (1972–6): S.429, C.3582, C.2893, C.646, C.1655, C.3435, C.3651, C.3654, C.3661; VII Legislature (1976–9): Law no. 194; VIII Legislature (1979–86): C.0570, C.0627, C.0905, C.2351; IX Legislature (1986–7).

(3) After the approval of Parliament, the law on divorce came into force on 1 December 1970. The DC immediately started a campaign against this law, organizing a referendum for its repeal on 12 May 1974. On this occasion, many of the demonstrations were organized by women, whose socio‐political influence also in mass mobilization was increasing. The DC referendum was unsuccessful: 40.74% voted against divorce, while 59.26% voted for maintaining the law. It was the first political and cultural defeat for Catholics in Italy, even though some left‐wing Christians, like those associated with the Florentine magazine Testimonianze, affirmed that divorce was ‘a matter of individual conscience and responsibility’. As well, evangelical/Protestant minorities in Italy have supported over the years the law on abortion and the principle of the self‐determination for women, also in the case of IVF. See Gruppo di Lavoro sui Problemi Etici posti dalla Scienza (1996).

(4) No bill can be considered by Parliament unless it is constitutional. The role of the Constitutional Court, composed of 15 judges, is thus to consider the constitutionality validity of a bill. As well as resolving institutional conflicts, the Constitutional Court must intervene when a judge believes that in a trial, as indicated by an interested solicitor or barrister, a juridical norm contravenes a constitutional principle. In such cases the trial is deferred until the Constitutional Court has given a judgement.

(5) Article 75 of the Italian Constitution permits popular referendums whereby people can give direct expression of their will about a specific law after its approval and implementation. A referendum can nullify an existing law; it cannot be used to create a new law. A petition for a referendum must be signed by at least 500,000 eligible voters. Their signatures are checked prior by the Corte di Cassazione (Cassation Court). If they are in order, then the Constitutional Court judges the validity of the petition, determining whether or not it is permitted by the constitution. Referendums for repealing fiscal and budget laws, amnesties, and international treaties are not allowed. The results of the referendums are considered valid only if a majority plus one of eligible voters has cast votes. The question takes the form: ‘Do you want the law X to be abrogated?’ If a majority of voters votes ‘yes’, the law is annulled. Otherwise the existing law remains in force.

(6) The pro‐life proposals were: (1) request for a referendum by the MpV, founded in 1977, ‘minimal' proposal' (Gazzetta Ufficiale 1981); (2) request for a referendum by the MpV, ‘maximal’ proposal; and (3) request for a referendum by the Alleanza per la Vita.

(7) The defeat was even worse for the Radicals: 88.4% voted no, with only 11% in favour.

(8) Seventy per cent of illegal abortions are performed in southern Italy due to cultural prejudices and lack of social services, and 20% by teenagers. The main reasons why these (p.203) women do not turn to public health structure are: 34% do not know about the existence of a liberal law; 41% do not want to endure the long wait to have an abortion in hospital; and 27% prefer to remain anonymous (ISTAT 2000). As well, there is a new phenomenon due to increasing human mobility, namely, the increase in the number of illegal abortions performed by migrant women, who often do not have regular residence permits: in 1980 there were 4,500, while in 1998 there were an estimated 20,480. Along with the persistence of back‐street abortions, these rates suggest that legal abortion is regarded as legitimate by the majority of citizens.

(9) Legal abortion was considered by the Constitutional Court to be compatible with constitutional principles. Therefore, another law could not prohibit it unless the Court issued a new ruling.