29 March 2012

The Catholic Church and reproductive freedom in Italy, part 2 of 2: Abortion and legislation

First of all, excuse me for the long absence. A full-time job out of nowhere interfered with my plans of spending all day long writing blogs about Italy! But now, on to the second instalment of my theme on the catholic church and reproductive freedom in Italy.

Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978. Due to lobbying from Catholic organisations a condition was put into legislation which allowed doctors to refuse to carry out abortions on grounds of their religious beliefs. This is also the case in other European countries, but after the jump I will get to why it is particularly problematic in Italy.

Of course not all doctors are even educated to carry out abortion, so in practical terms it means that a person will study for a certain amount of years to become a gynaecologist, after which that same person refuses to use parts of his or her education on the basis of religion. (Using a lot of resources to study something with the specific purpose of not using it, anyone?) The only thing required to object is to fill out a piece of paper, where the person in questions states oneself to be obiettore di coscienza on the basis of being catholic, and no further questions are asked.*) This is of course in large part due to the inefficiency of Italian bureaucracy, but at the same time it is a symptom of the profound power of the Church.

A side note: the term 'Obiettore di conscienza' was originally used in relation with compulsary military service. There were real consequences for those who refused to do their military service, such as prison. Doctors are, in contrast to this, actually protected by the law when they object, and this use of the term seems to be somehow missing the point. See here.

Formerly the doctors not carrying out abortions were not in the majority, but as the years pass and the society increasingly (re)embrace Catholic values, the stigma surrounding the carrying out of abortions is increasing, and the doctors who carry out abortions are going into retirement while fewer and fewer newly graduated doctors wish to do abortions.

This is for various reasons, but one of them is that a doctor who carries out abortions risks that this become the only thing the person will ever get to do professionally. This is first of all because there are so few doctors doing abortions in Italy that there is not enough qualified staff to carry through the operation, and second it is because the association with a work that is increasingly considered 'immoral' means that it becomes almost impossible to get a promotion, change departments, etc. Due to the negative consequences associated with carrying out abortions, fewer and fewer people choose it as a specialisation, and some people become 'obiettori' for reasons purely related to their professional career plans.

At this point there are already hospitals, particularly in the Southern Italy (where people traditionally are more religious), where it is impossible to get a therapeutical abortion for lack of qualified doctors, completely regardless the background for the wish for one, including life-threatening reasons. Moreover, it is estimated that it within the next five years will be completely impossible to get an abortion in the public healthcare system in Italy – in 2011 there were 150 doctors in the entire Italy that carry out abortions. (The private sector is a completely different story, but trust me, there is something to discuss!)

Abortion in Italy is not considered a sort of contraception (I doubt it is so anywhere else either), and there has to be a justification for the abortion, e.g. the health of mother or child, pregnancy due to rape, economy (the lack of ability to support the child), or similar. The legislation is more liberal than in Ireland, for example, but there is still a large degree of control with abortions. When a doctor objects due to religion, it is thus not against women having abortions all over the place regardless of both their own health and the expenses of the state (I don't think any women do this anywhere, let this be clear). They object against a woman controlling her own reproductive life and her own economical circumstances, and they refuse to carry out abortions even in life-threatening circumstances.

When the lack of access to abortion is combined with the lack of access to emergency contraception, and when moreover one takes the Pope's position on condoms into the calculation (they aggravate AIDS, are sinful and should not be used), it means that the sexual life of women is reduced to be about reproduction. If women do not wish to reproduce, they will have to not have sex.

Don't get me wrong – if women do not wish to have sex, they are more than welcome to not have it, for all I care. But if they wish to have sex, and the possibilities exist for controlling the diseases and pregnancies that in former times were potential consequences hereof, then I consider it a right to have access to these possibilities – that is, to contraception. When the Catholic Church meddles with the access to contraception and abortion for each and every inhabitant of Italy, through the national legislation, it is meddling with the control of these women over their own bodies and lives, regardless of whether those women wish that the Church have any influence hereupon (be they catholic or not).

It can, of course, be argued that men are influenced by this, too, but considering that men are not the ones becoming pregnant and having to give birth to the potential child, the direct consequences for them are much smaller, and it is much easier for a male to renounce all knowledge of conception and thereby also the responsibility hereof. The Vatican's stand on contraception is highly gendered, and its strong influence on Italian society is a cocktail that means that there are strong limitations on Italian women's sexual liberty and therewith also on their possibilities for real equality with men on this area.

*) Oh, the ever changing internets. My source for this piece of information has disappeared since I wrote the text. It will be added when I find it again.

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