by ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
Published: February 16, 2008
ROME — With voting less than two months away, a bitter debate over abortion has unexpectedly flared up, putting the issue at the center of the Italian electoral campaign.
The controversy over Italy’s 30-year-old law legalizing abortion stirred up demonstrations this week in its defense, with Health Minister Livia Turco among the protesters.
The demonstrations were touched off by an incident in a Naples hospital on Monday.
Acting on an anonymous tip that an abortion had been performed later in a pregnancy than the law allows, police officers entered the hospital and interrogated a Neapolitan woman, identified in the news media only by her first name, Silvana, immediately after the abortion and reportedly while she was still under the effects of anesthesia. They seized the aborted fetus.
Carmine Nappi, the chief of obstetrics at the hospital, likened the police intrusion to an anti-Mafia raid. “We’ve had countless complaints, we’re a hospital, but never a blitz like this,” he said by telephone on Thursday.
On Thursday evening, protesters gathered in several Italian cities. In Rome, a few hundred women and some men, many holding signs that read, “Silvana, we’re all with you,” stopped traffic in front of the Health Ministry. Ms. Turco praised the turnout. “We’re defending a law that is close to us,” she said.
On Friday, a group of women staged a sit-in in front of the Naples hospital.
An internal investigation at the hospital determined that the woman, 39, had terminated her pregnancy during the 21st week, within the 24-week limit set by the law, after tests disclosed that the fetus could have significant abnormalities.
In mid-December, Giuliano Ferrara, a conservative journalist close to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the center-right leader, began using his daily newspaper, Il Foglio, as a platform to support a universal moratorium on abortion. This week, he announced that he would run for Parliament as an independent in the April 13-14 elections on an anti-abortion ticket.
Critics of Mr. Ferrara’s campaign have accused him of trying to create fractures within the newly formed center-left Democratic Party, which has a sizable Roman Catholic component.
Center-left leaders have rejected calls to overturn the abortion law, which was upheld in a 1981 referendum after a battle with Italy’s Catholic establishment.
The law also includes provisions for family planning clinics and counseling for young women to avoid unplanned pregnancies. Many point to Health Ministry statistics to underscore the law’s effectiveness: In 2006, there were 130,000 terminated pregnancies in Italy, 44.6 percent fewer than in 1982, when 234,801 abortions were carried out.
Polls indicate that Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition will probably be the winner in the parliamentary elections, and some legislators allied with him are already calling for changes in the abortion law.