Italy Legalizes Abortion

Italy’s legalization of voluntary abortion marked a major victory for women’s reproductive rights, despite the legislation’s restrictions.

Summary of Event

Italy entered the 1970’s with laws prohibiting abortion still on the books. The penal code continued to criminalize abortion as “a crime against the race” that could be punished by up to five years in prison. This did not, however, prevent many women from terminating unwanted pregnancies. Rather, it meant that countless women from wealthier families went abroad for abortions, while the working class and poor were forced to turn to illegal, and often dangerous, local abortionists. Although exact statistics were unavailable, the evidence suggested that large numbers of illegal abortions were being obtained by Italian women and that Italy had by far the highest rate of illegal abortion in Europe. Moreover, the crude conditions under which many of these operations were performed resulted in the highest accidental death rate of any European nation. Abortion;laws and legal decisions
Reproductive rights
[kw]Italy Legalizes Abortion (May 22, 1978)
[kw]Legalizes Abortion, Italy (May 22, 1978)
[kw]Abortion, Italy Legalizes (May 22, 1978)
Abortion;laws and legal decisions
Reproductive rights
[g]Europe;May 22, 1978: Italy Legalizes Abortion[03260]
[g]Italy;May 22, 1978: Italy Legalizes Abortion[03260]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;May 22, 1978: Italy Legalizes Abortion[03260]
[c]Women’s issues;May 22, 1978: Italy Legalizes Abortion[03260]
Andreotti, Giulio
Berlinguer, Enrico
Paul VI

All attempts to reform the law on abortion were frustrated by Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s Christian Democratic Party Christian Democratic Party (Italy) (DC), which had dominated all postwar Italian governments. The DC opposed abortion reform, not so much out of principle as out of fear that any liberalization of abortion law would alienate Pope Paul VI and those devout Catholic voters on whose support the party counted. Of course, among such voters who believed in the sanctity of life from conception to death, the ancient and traditional Catholic teaching, matters of principle were deeply involved. Clearly the political parties perceived the need to tread carefully in regard to this controversial issue.

With more than one-fourth of the seats in the Italian parliament, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), led by Enrico Berlinguer, was the main opposition group. The PCI advocated women’s rights but hesitated to push the abortion issue for two reasons. First, it feared that a Communist campaign for reproductive rights might alienate those sections of the working-class base that were socially conservative or Catholic. More immediately, Berlinguer was attempting to build bridges to Christian Democracy and effect a compromise that might lead to a coalition government. The PCI leader feared those bridges might very well be burned by raising an issue as divisive as abortion.

If the abortion law had not changed in generations, the role of women in Italian society had. In the 1970’s, women were growing increasingly independent. More than 65 percent of the new positions in the growing service sector were filled by women, while 40 percent of university students were female. As more women moved into cities and became better educated, they grew away from both the Catholic Church and traditional social values.

Out of the Italian New Left of the 1960’s, a women’s liberation movement developed that sought to make a reality of the Italian constitutional provision that guaranteed equal rights. By 1974, most of the feminist movement had united to focus on women’s rights to control their bodies through free birth control and abortion rights. Of the various women’s organizations, one of the most important was the Movimento di Liberazione della Donna Movimento di Liberazione della Donna (MLD; movement for the liberation of women), which was associated closely with the small Radical Party.

In 1975, the MLD and the Radical Party Radical Party (Italy) launched a campaign to collect the 500,000 signatures necessary to force a referendum on the abortion issue. The fact that the campaigners were able to garner 800,000 names on their petitions demonstrated that there was substantial public support for repeal of the old abortion restriction. This campaign in turn provoked a wide-ranging debate on the role of women in Italian society.

April, 1976, saw fifty thousand women march on Rome to push for equal rights, including reproductive rights. In order to prevent the abortion referendum from taking place, the Christian Democrats tried to reform the old law by issuing a proposal for changes that would leave abortion defined as criminal behavior. This caused a crisis within the DC-dominated coalition government, and early national elections, a year ahead of schedule, became inevitable.

The June 20, 1976, elections saw the Christian Democrats barely maintain their position as the largest party, with 38.7 percent of the vote; the PCI received 34.4 percent of all ballots cast, its best showing ever. In addition, the tiny Radical Party, which had made abortion legalization a major issue, entered parliament, although with a mere 1.1 percent showing. The election may have postponed abortion reform, but it certainly was unable to stop it.

As pressure from women mounted, the referendum sponsored by the Radical Party and the MLD appeared as a clear and present danger for both the DC and the Catholic Church. Roman Catholic Church;abortion Both institutions increasingly realized that they could no longer depend on many of their erstwhile supporters to back traditional conservative social positions. One public opinion poll conducted in 1974 found that only 30 percent of the population identified themselves as practicing Catholics. One survey indicated that even among this grouping almost half of the Catholic Church’s “faithful” approved of abortion rights.

It was imperative, therefore, that a parliamentary deal be worked out that would prevent abortion from being legalized by referendum. Many DC leaders knew that change was inevitable and were willing to compromise to get the best deal possible, even though Pope Paul VI, a friend of DC Prime Minister Andreotti, was appalled by the thought of any liberalization. On the other hand, Berlinguer wanted to avoid a referendum that would force the PCI to attack openly his would-be Christian Democratic partners.

Even with so many politicians attempting to alter the abortion statute in order to diffuse the issue, the fight within the parliament was fierce. Under tremendous pressure from those who believed that women had the right to control their own bodies, the Italian Chamber of Deputies passed a compromise bill in January, 1977, only to have it fail in June in the Italian senate, whose members were under great pressure from the Vatican. Not until May 22, 1978, did the proposal become law.

By allowing the provisions making abortion a criminal offense to be deleted, the DC earned the determined opposition and criticism of many Church officials. On the other side, the Communist leadership found that they had alienated the women’s movement and many of their own members by allowing any restrictions on free and legal abortion. The new statute did legalize abortion, but it contained a number of limitations and qualifications.

Under the new law, after consultation with a social worker and a doctor, an Italian woman had to undergo a seven-day “meditation” period before having the operation. As part of a Christian Democratic demand to defend the family, parental permission was required for those under age eighteen. Thus, a large number of younger women continued to seek illegal abortions. Further, many women found it difficult, and nearly impossible in certain regions, to obtain legal abortions, as the law gave medical staff the right of conscientious objection. This proved particularly problematic in a nation where the vast majority of doctors were male and Catholic.


For all its restrictions, which were not unlike those found in other European countries, this new law established the right of women to decide for themselves whether to bear children and marked a major victory for women’s reproductive rights. This was even more true since it took place in a European nation where women’s rights had historically lagged behind those of many northern neighbors. Even so, there were many who saw the compromise falling well short of granting the fundamental human rights to which women were entitled, while opponents continued to view the changes as an assault on the basic right to life.

In the years that followed the legalization of abortion in Italy, the actions of Italian women showed that the reform was one of practical significance. By the peak year of 1982, more than 234,000 women had legal abortions. From this peak, the numbers declined to about 140,000 by the year 2000. All the same, about 100,000 women, especially from rural areas where doctors were more likely to refuse to perform the operation, continued to seek illegal abortions, although the number of illegal abortions also declined, falling to fewer than 30,000 per year.

With the implementation of one of Europe’s most extensive and accurate abortion surveillance systems, data on abortions in Italy have become increasingly reliable. The trends seen in Italy are like those of several other European countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, where abortion rates rose at first and then declined after legalization. By 1983, nearly seventeen abortions were obtained per one thousand Italian women of reproductive age, but by 1993, the rate had declined to ten per one thousand through the early twenty-first century. The rate was lowest among adolescent women, suggesting that the parental consent provisions may have discouraged abortions in that age group.

The vast support that legalized (if regulated) abortion received from the general population was shown by the failure of the Catholic Church to have the law repealed. Despite an aggressive Church campaign undertaken to repeal the liberalized law, when put to a vote through referendum in May, 1981, only a minority of 30 percent favored repeal.

When abortion became legal in Italy on May 22, 1978, a number of significant changes took place. First, a law that threatened women with jail sentences for exercising their reproductive rights was eliminated. This was important in and of itself, but it was also a major step on the road toward greater equality for Italian women. However, the controversial nature of abortion in Italy shaped the way the debate on liberalization of abortion laws was conducted and affected the substance of the legislation, which still contained provisions limiting the conditions under which legal abortions could be obtained, in a country where the Catholic Church continued to exercise influence over the attitudes of many and where the conservative nature of the medical profession in parts of the country at first inhibited full access to the new abortion right. In time, with the implementation of maternity health clinics, which gave women an alternative route to using their primary physician to obtain an abortion certificate, even the regional disparity of abortion access and abortion rates converged, so that only minor variations existed among Italy’s various regions at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Abortion;laws and legal decisions
Reproductive rights

Further Reading

  • Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Brilliant, readable prose combines with a wealth of research and detail to produce a book that should delight both the average reader and the academic expert. Reference notes, bibliography, and index.
  • LaPalombara, Joseph. Democracy: Italian Style. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Entertaining and well documented, this work provides useful background for those who wish to understand the complexities of Italian politics. Reference notes and index.
  • Leonardi, Robert, and Douglas A. Wertman. Italian Christian Democracy: The Politics of Dominance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Extremely detailed information combines with a clear writing style to produce a book that sheds much light on the largest party in Italian politics. Reference notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Spotts, Frederic, and Theodor Wieser. Italy: A Difficult Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Very readable work that gives an excellent overview of the Italian political system. Bibliography and index.
  • Stetson, Dorothy McBride, ed. Abortion Politics, Women’s Movements, and the Democratic State: A Comparative Study of State Feminism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Cross-national research covers abortion politics in eleven countries, including Italy (chapter 9).

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