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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 March 2006, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Italian poll stirs up abortion row
By Rosie Goldsmith
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

For the first time in 25 years abortion has become an election issue in Italy as politicians put religious and moral issues at the centre of their campaigns.

An election poster of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at Rome Termini station
The prime minister's face beams down from election posters

When you arrive at Rome's Termini Station you are greeted by vast election posters of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi beaming down at you from revolving pillars all over the station.

In his flamboyant way, he has promised to abstain from sex until after the general election, which takes place on 9 and 10 April.

He has also compared himself with Jesus Christ because, as he claims, he is suffering for the Italian people.

But there are also more traditionalist Christian messages coming from Italy's politicians.

Both Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition and Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition are using religion and ethics in their campaigns, focusing on issues such as fertility rights and abortion.

Critics are alarmed that Italy's liberal Catholic values may be under threat.

The majority of Catholics, according to polls, disagree with church dogma on homosexuality, divorce and abortion.

They say that the church is dangerously meddling in politics.

Abortion - made legal in Italy in 1978 - is at the heart of this debate.

Difficult choice

Benedetta, a professional women in her 30s, became pregnant last year.

She developed a virus and was told there was a high chance the foetus would be infected and born with a serious deformity.

She decided to terminate the pregnancy - possible on medical grounds, according to the law.

She explained her difficult decision: "If I kill someone at 20 weeks I have no idea whether he will suffer or not.

It was not possible in Italy. I didn't feel free to decide what I feel, what I want
Benadetta, Italian women

"But it is better that he suffer for one second than for 30 years [with a] vegetable life."

At the first hospital she attended she was refused permission.

She consulted 10 doctors and most agreed it was her choice. But the problem was finding one to carry out the abortion.

More and more gynaecologists in Italy are becoming conscientious objectors to abortion and in some places in the south it is up to 80%.

Benedetta exhausted the possibilities and at 23 weeks she and her partner flew to Spain to have the termination at a private clinic.

"It was not possible in Italy," she said, "I didn't feel free to decide what I feel, what I want."

Benedetta was keen to tell her story "on the record". Other women with similar experiences were not.

Abortion 'crackdown'

In the beautiful, prosperous city of Bergamo in the region of Lombardy, the programme met a doctor from the main hospital.

It has one of the biggest gynaecology units in Italy and he claimed there was a crackdown on abortions there. He called himself "Ettore" as he did not want his real name to be used.

I have already been completely marginalised within the unit, and now only carry out menial tasks
'Ettore', Italian doctor

"There are very few doctors willing to perform abortions in this hospital. They think it will damage their careers," he said.

"Inside the gynaecology unit - and this is probably unique in Italy - there is a centre run by Movement for Life, a pro-life movement. The head of the unit is known to support this group."

"I've been trying for months now to draw attention to this," Ettore went on, "but it's a problem, especially with politicians in Italy.

"In ethical questions like this it means they would have to confront religious groups.

"I have already been completely marginalised within the unit and now only carry out menial tasks. The only time I'm allowed into the operating theatre is to carry out abortions."

Women 'in doubt'

Movement for Life workers at the Bergamo hospital
Movement for Life volunteers are employed to advise women
Head of the Unit Luigi Frigerio confirmed that he did support the anti-abortion cause and the existence of the Movement for Life centre in the hospital.

Speaking to the programme he said: "All doctors are pro-life. We have had 25 cases in the last five years of women in doubt who were just about to have an abortion.

"We contacted the volunteers at this centre and they helped these women not to stop the pregnancy.

"You can say we saved one whole classroom of school children."

In January, 150,000 women marched through Milan under the banner "Breaking The Silence" to protest what they saw as attempts to undermine the right to choose.

And as the elections draw near, their protests are getting louder. They say politicians are kowtowing to a more traditionalist Catholic Church.

Referendum boycott

Rocco Buttiglione, Italian minister
We are at a turning point which is why we won the boycott last year
Rocco Buttiglione, Italian minister
Rocco Buttiglione, one of Berlusconi's top ministers and close to the Vatican, is known for his orthodox views. He explained how he saw the situation in Italy before the election.

He gave the example of the successful boycott of a referendum last year on reforming Italy's strict fertility law.

The boycott was led by the outspoken, dogmatic Cardinal Ruini, head of the Italian Catholic Church.

"We are at a turning point, which is why we won the boycott last year," Mr Buttiglione said.

"Should children be born out of the love between a man and a woman or should we make them into a commodity? The answer [to the latter is] clearly 'no'. There is an important change in the mood of the country."

The programme pointed out to Mr Buttiglione that according to opinion polls the majority of Italians do not support these conservative views.

"Politicians should not always tell people what they want to hear, but what they think is true," Mr Buttiglione responded.

And he added: "Cardinal Ruini is an Italian citizen and has the right to free speech. He is expressing what he thinks is true."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 30 March, 2006, at 1102 BST.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 3 April, 2006, at 2030 BST.

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