"Even if the government is indeed being sincere in their desire to protect the rights of unborn children by restricting access to contraception, by their own admission low birth rates in Italy persist," writes Arianna Belluardo in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. "Meanwhile, evidence thus far shows that improving access to contraception would not depress birth rates, but contrarily, reduce the rate of practised abortions, which remain in some cases physically and emotionally draining for women. The result of this intellectual confusion is a concerning reversal of women's rights, which itself can have further highly negative consequences on parents and their children in the future, as it would force those who do not want to, to raise a child that would be unwanted, and therefore, most likely unhappy."
In April, AIFA, the Italian Medicines Agency, granted free access to birth control for all women, a historic step in simplifying a controversial topic in a country heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. However, it took the government only a few weeks to make it complicated.
Despite abortion being legally protected since 1978, women’s rights still have a long way to go in Italy. Accessing abortion remains challenging due to a significant number of gynecologists who identify as conscientious objectors and refuse to perform abortions, as permitted by Italian law.
However, the unconditional free distribution of birth control across Italy granted by the AIFA would have followed other European countries such as Spain and France, and as well as the Emilia-Romagna and Toscana regions which already approved the measures months ago. The estimated cost for the measure is €140 million per year, which, according to Wired, is a perfectly feasible sum for the state to bear. The premises for the measure to be carried forward are promising, however, the government-controlled bodies of AIFA disagree.
Even though the agency’s technical bodies had already approved the disposition on free contraception, the Administration Council (Consiglio di Amministrazione), the organ that oversees the decisions of the agency, has put a stop to the measure by raising several concerns. These ranged from women’s physical health, to decreasing birth rates, to religious and moral motives. The concerns posed by the government are not simply politicians’ declarations to the press, but also opinions that find their space for debate in the Administration Council, which has the ultimate decisional power and is deeply influenced by current politics, starting from its board, which is appointed by the Minister of Heath.
No consideration has been given to the actual reasons for Italy's low birth rate, access to contraception is not one of them
The board is composed of five seats, three of which are occupied by people close to or belonging to Lega; the right-wing party guided by Matteo Salvini. Hence, the most important body of the agency is currently ruled by conservative figures, if not far-right, whose parties have long advocated against women’s right to abortion and entertained controversial organisations such as Pro Vita & Famiglia. Speaking to Ansa.it about the proposed measure, the board member of Pro Vita & Famiglia, Maria Rachele Ruiu, recently said "there is nothing more dangerous for women's health than trivializing issues that impact them directly, such as abortion, contraception, gender and prostitution".
Not only did the board of directors question whether the contraceptive should be reimbursed for all women of childbearing age, but they also suggested that it should only be available to those with financial difficulties, or within the age range of 19 to 26 years. The right-wing government in Italy, which has strongly advocated for so-called traditional family values since Giorgia Meloni's election campaign and prioritised advocating to increase birth rates in the country, had already expressed opposition to the initial decision made by the AIFA.
Specifically, Lavinia Mennuni, a senator from the Brother of Italy party (Fratelli d’Italia), called on the agency to reconsider its decision and instead focus on support for pregnancy and families. She also suggested that the government should have the authority to decide on the availability of the birth control pill, rather than the AIFA.
It is concerning how no consideration has been given to the actual reasons for Italy’s low birth rate, such as the lack of means families have to actually raise children. Instead, birth control and abortion have been blamed as selfish tools that women use to not start a family. Ironically, if the government is so against abortion, it should consider the statistics from the Emilia-Romagna and Toscana regions, which have proven that free birth control has greatly reduced requests for abortion. This should ultimately be an aim of the government as well, since it has spoken out against it and wants to limit it. In any case, access to contraception in Italy is already limited, requests for abortions are higher in those regions where access to contraception is more limited, and yet low birth rates nationwide persist.
It is hypothesized that the government’s strategy is an attempt to delay the approval of the measure by the CDA until the reform of AIFA comes into effect, a reform that has been on Giorgia Meloni's government agenda since the two technical-scientific committees gave the green light for the free distribution of the pill.
Government reforms could limit the autonomy of the agency that initially approved the free contraception measure
This reform, which would eliminate the figure of the general director and merge the two technical committees, could be a way to limit the autonomy of the agency. In fact, there is currently a President (appointed by the regional administrations), and a General Director (appointed by the Minister of Health), these two figures would conciliate both the political and the technical aspect of the organisation. The reform would put all the power in the hands of one person, making the Agency less technical and more political. The government has justified this by saying that the Agency is currently too slow in the decision-making process.
Meanwhile, Pro Vita & Famiglia is not an isolated case of radical opinions towards women’s rights. Anti-abortion groups in Italy have intensified their opposition to abortion, and Giorgia Meloni's right-wing government has shown tolerance for these groups by advocating against “gender ideology”. The associations have, in return, claimed that they “agreed with Meloni 100%” as she has been pushing for legislation that would restrict abortion rights in the country.
Among other things, Meloni spoke at the controversial Congresso della Famiglia (Congress of Family) which took place in 2019 in Verona. This Congress has been greatly debated in the press and flagged as homophobic by several associations; the controversies have included the organisers of the Congress distributing plastic gadgets in the shape of fetuses with the sentence “abortion stops a beating heart” underneath. This approach to abortion should not be surprising, as last year, Italian Senator Maurizio Gasparri, representing Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, proposed an amendment to the civil code that would recognize a fetus as a human being, effectively classifying abortion as murder.
The result of this intellectual confusion is a concerning reversal of women's rights
Even if the government is indeed being sincere in their desire to protect the rights of unborn children by restricting access to contraception, by their own admission low birth rates in Italy persist. Meanwhile, evidence thus far shows that improving access to contraception would not depress birth rates, but contrarily, reduce the rate of practised abortions, which remain in some cases physically and emotionally draining for women. The result of this intellectual confusion is a concerning reversal of women's rights, which itself can have further highly negative consequences on parents and their children in the future, as it would force those who do not want to, to raise a child that would be unwanted, and therefore, most likely unhappy.
On the contrary, citizens and representatives of Italy need to ask themselves how to create a country in which young couples who actually want to start a family are able to do so.