Intended for healthcare professionals


Abortion becomes hot political issue in run up to Italian election

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 21 February 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:408
  1. Fabio Turone
  1. 1Milan

Men and women took to the streets of Italy last week to protest about police behaviour towards a woman who had had a late abortion for fetal abnormality.

A police patrol of seven rushed into the Naples University Hospital, Federico II, after they received an anonymous phone call saying that an illegal abortion had taken place in the hospital’s gynaecology department.

Press reports say that the police interrogated the 39 year old woman as she got back to her room immediately after the procedure and seized the aborted fetus, even though the head of the department rapidly proved that the procedure was legal, as an amniocentesis at week 21 had shown that the fetus was affected by Klinefelter’s syndrome.

The police raid was seen by many people as intimidation and caused demonstrations all over Italy. Livia Turco, health minister in Romano Prodi’s outgoing centre left government, took part in a demonstration in Rome.

“The witch hunt is on,” she said. “What happened reflects the intolerable climate of tension surrounding one of the most dramatic choices for a woman.”

Abortion, which has been legal in Italy since 1978, is becoming a major issue as political parties prepare for parliamentary elections in April.

The 1978 law was passed in an attempt to curb widespread clandestine abortions carried out unsafely. Under the law a woman can ask for a termination within the first 90 days of pregnancy when, for economic, social, or family reasons, the pregnancy might put her physical or psychological health at risk. Later interventions, up to the sixth month, are legal when it can be shown that the woman’s life is at risk or the fetus is at serious risk of illness (which might affect the woman’s physical or psychological health). The law also restricts the practice to public hospitals.

Recent data that Ms Turco presented to the Italian parliament in October 2007 show that the number of terminations in Italy has been steadily falling since 1982. Around 59% of gynaecologists, 46% of anaesthetists, and 39% of non-medical staff in the units that carry out abortions are conscientious objectors, which often makes it difficult for women to obtain timely assistance.

In recent weeks the Catholic church has called for a redefinition of the gestational ageat which neonatologists must provide resuscitation at birth. Moreover, a document recently signed by the chiefs of the gynaecology departments of the four medical schools in Rome stated that doctors must resuscitate “extremely premature newborns” even without the mother’s consent.

The issue entered the political arena when the journalist and political commentator Giuliano Ferrara, a former minister in the first Berlusconi centre right government, announced a brand new party (supporting Berlusconi’s bid to be prime minister) with the specific goal of banning abortion.

On its front page the daily newspaper he edits, Il Foglio, described the abortion in Naples as the “killing of a sick baby.” He also announced that he will undergo genetic testing, as he thinks he may be affected by Klinefelter’s syndrome himself.

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