A demonstration organised by Pro Vita & Famiglia in Rome in May
A demonstration organised by Pro Vita & Famiglia in Rome in May. Credit: Alamy

For years, gynaecologist Silvana Agatone has helped women get abortions. First, when she worked at the Sandro Pertini public hospital in Rome; then, after going private, when she co-founded a pro-choice association. She has often felt like the odds are against her. Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978, but medical staff are allowed to refuse to provide treatment, based on their conscience.

“The nurse can even refuse on [grounds of] conscientious objection to bring the pill to a patient who asked for a pharmacological abortion,” Agatone says. In public hospitals there are almost always staff who refuse to provide the service because of their personal beliefs, usually grounded in the Catholic faith. According to a 2020 government survey of public hospitals, 64.6 per cent of gynaecologists, 44.6 per cent of anaesthetists and 36.2 per cent of the rest of the medical staff were conscientious objectors.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni reassured the public before her election in September 2022 that she would “fully enforce” the 1978 legislation, which is supposed to protect the right to abortion. But now that Meloni is in power, it’s clear that her government actually wants to undermine the reproductive rights of Italian women. The coalition includes her far-right party Brothers of Italy, as well as Forza Italia, once led by Silvio Berlusconi, and the xenophobic populist party the League. Together, they flaunt their conservative Catholic ideology. They have often been vocal about their anti-choice positions. On the very first day of the new parliament, MP Maurizio Gasparri of Forza Italia proposed a bill to ban abortion completely. It didn’t receive much political attention, but can be seen as a symbol of what was to come.

Part of the problem lies in the ambiguity of the 1978 legislation. Though it grants access to abortion, the law also protects the rights of medical staff to conscientious objection. Further, it requires a pregnant woman to be presented with any possible alternative to termination.

Pro-life advocates take advantage of this lack of clarity. For example, the 1978 law requires the state to open consulting rooms in hospitals. These should be safe places for women to discuss their decision. The state is supposed to provide help in certain cases, such as if the reason for seeking abortion is financial. However, in parts of Italy, like the Piemonte and Veneto regions, much of the funding goes straight to the pro-life group Movimento per la Vita (Movement for Life), who use the consulting rooms to deter women from going through with the procedure. The members of the movement generally have a Catholic background, though the group presents as non-denominational.

Pro-life groups operate inside and outside of hospitals and clinics, sucking up funding that would instead go to support the secular program run by the state. “At times, you have the staff chaplain roaming the ward reciting prayers,” Agatone says. “Or a random person holds out their hand, you try to shake it, and you end up with a cartoonish plastic foetus in your palm.” Groups like Pro Vita & Famiglia (Pro Life and Family) and CitizenGo engage in graphic disinformation campaigns, often sparking controversy. In one case, they depicted a woman dying after taking the abortion pill (the death rate connected with the pill is in reality extremely low).

A new voice in the national government

A recent investigation published by Scomodo magazine showed that, in Piemonte, pro-life groups like Movimento per la Vita had been given more than €400,000 by the regional government. The law in Italy delegates the task of regulating abortion to the regional level, where the coalition parties have also gathered power in recent years in regional councils. They have been using it to help actively undermine reproductive rights at the local level.

Anti-choice groups were operating before the election of Prime Minister Meloni. They have in common the same set of battles, from opposing abortion to demonising same-sex parenting and encouraging young women to seek motherhood and family over independence. They share a Catholic background and draw on the same vocabulary. They had already colonised regional councils. The difference is that now they have found a place, and a voice, in the national government.

Take the Minister of Equal Opportunities and the Family, Eugenia Roccella. She was once the spokesperson of the first edition of the most prominent Italian summit of conservative groups: Family Day, a convention promoting supposedly traditional and Christian family values. On several occasions, Roccella has parroted the concerns of groups like Pro Vita & Famiglia, as well as promoting the views of the Vatican. For example, when Roccella condemned the habit of giving Christian names to pets, she was repeating one of Pope Francis’s favourite subjects – the fear that people might choose to have a pet instead of a child. She has repeatedly said that abortion is not “a right”.

Another point of convergence between these activist groups and the government is in their attitudes to surrogacy. The practice is already banned in Italy, since 2004. But under Meloni, last July, a new law was passed which allowed the prosecution of Italian couples who pursue surrogacy abroad. The government has also launched a campaign against same-sex parents, with Roccella saying multiple times that children deserve “a dad and a mum”. Her party has also attempted to ban a scheme which allows students going through gender transition to attend school and university under the name and identity of their choice. (Since there is no state regulation on this, some 200 state schools have adopted the scheme independently, but its success is threatened by the state’s strong opposition.)

An international movement

The government’s agenda is motivated in part by the desire to reverse Italy’s falling population figures. Roccella has encouraged women and young couples to have more children as a moral obligation and a sacrifice. A family allowance, still under discussion, would only benefit couples with three or more children, with the Italian average being one. Roccella blames the nation’s low fertility rate on expanded career and lifestyle opportunities for younger generations. She forgets to mention the economic crisis, youth unemployment and the cost of housing, echoing a common obsession of the Christian right: blaming the cultural revolution of the 60s for the societal struggles of today.

But to fully understand what’s happening in Italy it’s important to grasp the global context, and the growing influence of the “anti-gender” movement. This is an international movement that opposes what it refers to as “gender ideology” or “genderism”. The ideological framework of the movement goes back to the response of the Vatican when the UN started incorporating reproductive rights into its system in 1994. Fearing that this would lead to an international acceptance of abortion and homosexuality, the Vatican devised a strategy to overturn and weaponise the language of the global civil rights movement in support of a Catholic vision of the world.

As recounted by researchers David Paternotte and Roman Kuhar in their article “Disentangling and Locating the ‘Global Right’: Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe”, the first word to undergo this transformation was “gender”. While the World Health Organisation defines “gender” as “the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed”, Catholic publications re-engineered the term to portray a conspiracy intended to overthrow “the natural law”.

These years also saw the foundation of the World Congress of Families, an international summit that discusses ultra-conservative Christian ideologies on the pretext of promoting the traditional family. Meloni participated in its 2019 Verona edition. In 2003, the publication of the new “Vatican Lexicon: Ambiguous and Debatable Terms Regarding Family Life and Ethical Questions” was also instrumental in inspiring Catholic advocates. It included an important theological critique of the term “gender”.

It is important to stress that the Vatican never controlled these new anti-gender groups, and many of the groups themselves masked their Catholic origins under the ambition of being non-denominational movements.

Vatican inspired

In Italy, the anti-gender network orbits around Family Day, which started in 2007. As well as Roccella, other prominent figures from Family Day ended up in Meloni’s magic circle. That includes Gigi De Paolo, the current director of the Stati Generali della Natalità (States-General for Fertility), a state-sponsored event dedicated to increasing the country’s birth rate by encouraging Italian women to have more babies. This year’s edition saw the participation of Meloni, President Sergio Mattarella and Pope Francis. Every party leader attended, including the opposition, wary of leaving such an important issue to the monopoly of the right – testament to the transformation of the Italian anti-gender world from a marginal to a central actor in regional and national politics.

Massimo Prearo, a political scientist at the University of Verona, explains that while anti-gender groups have benefited from the support of the current government, they also helped to put them in power, particularly forging ties with the Brothers of Italy party. “But this alliance is based on trade,” Prearo points out. While anti-gender campaigners offer the party a fresh set of ideals, the party then introduces them into the public debate. The practice was apparent in the Lombardy region, where Brothers of Italy forced a motion against the previously mentioned self-identification scheme in schools and universities. This was in direct response to an appeal by Pro Vita & Famiglia. “They exploit the mechanisms of democracy,” Prearo says.

Since their pragmatism differs from other conservative Catholics, in his book L’ipotesi Neocattolica, Prearo calls them “neo-Catholic”. “These groups have a Catholic matrix, but their project is political and not religious, as they rarely refer to the faith,” he says. They instead invoke universal rights and present their battles as a question of morality. In this way, they still defend what they consider the basis of their faith, like the complementarity of sexes, but without alluding to any connection to the Vatican. “It’s good for the Church to have an independent, secularised movement fighting battles for them,” he says.

David Paternotte, a researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, has also spoken of the Vatican’s influence over Italy. It is “one of the first laboratories where these anti-gender campaigns have been imagined because of the presence of the Vatican,” he says. This may be why campaigners in Italy have been more successful in blocking progressive politics than in the rest of Western Europe. One of their major recent victories was convincing the centre-right to ditch an anti-discrimination bill in 2021. MPs celebrated the win by shouting and clapping in the Senate. The bill would have set legal protections against homophobia, misogyny and ableism. In a rare move, the Vatican also came out publicly against the bill, apparently fearing it would impose the acceptance of homosexuality on objecting Catholics.

A pan-European network

Italy’s anti-gender campaigns are not only linked to the Vatican. They are also part of a pan-European trend and network of support. In Spain, the far-right party Vox has embraced them. In Eastern Europe, it is more often the state that engineers these campaigns – for example the recent law restricting abortion in Poland. In Russia, anti-LGBTQ+ laws were passed with the complicity of the Orthodox Church. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used anti-gender campaigns to maintain his power after migrants stopped working as culprits, eventually passing a Russian-style law on child protection that barred the distribution of LGBTQ+ content.

Orbán is a source of inspiration for Meloni, as she has often admitted. In September, speaking at the Hungarian Fertility Forum, she praised Hungary as a model for fertility politics and the emancipation of women, though the country scored lower than Italy on the European Gender Equality Index.

In 2017, the disclosure of a secret document shed light on an ongoing roadmap to impose a regressive Catholic morality on the continent. The document, “Restoring the Natural Order”, was produced by Agenda Europe, a group described by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF) as a “Vatican-inspired professional advocacy network”. The document advised claiming “victim status” for a feigned anti-Catholic discrimination and urged campaigners to “not be afraid of being unrealistic or extremist”.

The manifesto of Pro Vita & Famiglia shares many points with that document. At the time, Agenda Europe was trying to infiltrate European institutions, according to EPF director Neil Datta. Since then, they have switched their focus to national governments, which can then influence the European Commission. Their best bet at achieving this is if the radical European Conservatives and Reformists Party, led by Meloni, manages to form a coalition with the more moderate European People’s Party.

Whether or not this coalition comes about, what is certain is that the money will keep flowing. Datta says EPF’s upcoming report will likely demonstrate that funding for anti-gender campaigns from countries like the US, Poland and Hungary has steadily increased to more than $100 million a year. The sum probably includes Russian money, barely trackable due to the sanctions for the war in Ukraine. Some of it goes to finance conservative think tanks hoping to encourage polarisation similar to that in the US. “The infrastructure to do so is being built,” Datta says.

In Italy, activists are preparing to resist in the long term. Agatone is one of many clinicians on the front line of this war. Along with her colleague, gynaecologist Concetta Grande, she runs the association Laiga 194, founded in 2008 to offer support to women seeking abortion care. Among other activities they maintain an open-source map of the hospitals that actually provide abortions. But they do not have the resources to engage in billboard campaigns, as their counterparts do. “Pro-life groups have way more funds than us and have even more access to the hospital management than the doctors do,” Agatone says. There is only so much that can be done on the ground to counter regional and national government, connected to a global network of groups, including the Vatican.

As Paternotte says, “it seems like Italy is heading backwards to a time before the 70s” – a time before many civil rights laws were introduced.

For now those laws offer some protection, but as campaigners on both sides know all too well, you do not need to impose a ban or repeal a law to lose a right. There are more subtle ways.

Italy stands as an example of what anti-gender groups have already managed to achieve. Now that they know they can succeed in influencing a Western European democracy, they will keep trying in other countries. And they are certainly here to stay.

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.