Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life Criticizes Italy’s RU-486 Embrace

Italy’s new guidelines have also extended legal permission for the abortion pill to be taken up until the ninth rather than seventh week of gestation.

In this photo illustration, a woman looks at information about the abortion pill (RU-486) displayed on a smartphone. The Pontifical Academy for Life said today that a decision by the Italian government to allow the abortion pill on an outpatient basis breaches Italy’s abortion law.
In this photo illustration, a woman looks at information about the abortion pill (RU-486) displayed on a smartphone. The Pontifical Academy for Life said today that a decision by the Italian government to allow the abortion pill on an outpatient basis breaches Italy’s abortion law. (photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — The Pontifical Academy for Life has said a decision by the Italian government last week to allow women in the country to use the abortion pill on an outpatient basis rather than be hospitalized to terminate a pregnancy breaches Italy’s abortion law.

In a statement issued Aug. 14, the academy said the decision contravened Italy’s 1978 law No. 194 that legalized abortion, as that regulation stressed the woman should be made aware of the most effective and secure procedures, denied abortion should be used as a form of birth control, and emphasized the importance of counseling centers to help prevent termination of pregnancy.

The law, the academy added, was also designed around an idea of nurturing a “shared civilization” but said this has been “largely disregarded.” By allowing women to administer the abortifacient at home rather than at a hospital, the academy said the woman is isolated and deprived of the medical care she needs at a time of “great emotional, social and moral importance.”

Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, announced the new guidelines last Saturday in a tweet, saying the change was “an important step forward” based on scientific evidence. He insisted that it “fully respects” Italy’s 1978 law legalizing abortion. 

Until the change, which observers say has been implemented to avoid overloading hospital facilities during the COVID emergency, women in Italy were only allowed to be administered the drug, called mifepristone or RU-486, after admission to the hospital. The drug terminates a pregnancy by causing the embryo to detach from the uterine wall.

Speranza’s tweeted new guidelines have also extended legal permission for the pill to be taken up until the ninth rather than seventh week of gestation.

The move was welcomed by many on the political left. Nicola Fratoianni, representative for the Sinistra Italiana, called it a “great step forward in the civilization for our country.” Cecilia D’Elia, representing the National Conference of Democratic Women, said it removed ideology from the discussion and “brought it back to scientific evidence and therefore respect of women’s health and their choices.”

D’Elia argued that pharmacological abortion, practiced in 20% of abortions in Italy, is “safe and less invasive than surgical abortion,” adding that it would also be possible to be administered in outpatient facilities and consultancies.

But the Catholic Church, pro-life groups and politicians on the political right have unanimously opposed the decision.

“It’s disconcerting how many jubilant reactions speak of a step towards greater freedom for women” when “women are less protected,” commented the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire.

The newspaper said many women are deceived by the effects on them of the abortifacient and recounted the story of a 38-year-old woman doctor who had taken the drug two years ago and said the pain was much greater than doctors had advised.

“It was much more like the pain of labor,” said the doctor called Catia, whose real name was withheld, adding that she was “sick for 10 days, not two,” and suffered panic attacks and depression that required months of psychotherapy. She said the government’s decision shows the “economy is more important than the person, and we saw with COVID-19 how much damage this logic caused.”

The left-leaning Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica quoted the leader of the pro-life Family Day, Massimo Gandolfini, saying that taking RU-486 without hospitalization is “an attack on the life and health of the woman,” which “trivializes the abortion and leaves her more and more alone in a dramatic situation.”

He added: “Facilitating and promoting do-it-yourself abortion actually means removing girls who are experiencing a difficult pregnancy from counseling and life support centers where they can be sure to receive concrete support, enabling them to choose life and not death.”

Alberto Gambino, president of Scienza & Vita, a bioethics association, said the new guidelines “circumvent” Italy’s abortion law, which stipulates that terminations could only be carried out under safe conditions for the woman.

Italian lawmaker Giorgia Meloni of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party said the new guidelines would deprive women of necessary psychological and medical care and make women “experience a difficult and dangerous procedure in solitude.” She also saw it as contravening Italy’s abortion law and the safety conditions it was meant to impose.

But Italy’s unelected government stood by its decision. Deputy Minister of Economy Laura Castelli said that “putting ideology aside, respecting women’s health is a priority.” Abortion, she said, “is a personal, painful, personal choice that must be respected.”

The government took the decision in the face of Umbria’s governor reintroducing in June the obligation of a mother staying three days in the hospital in order to take the drug instead of one day, as required by the previous administration.

In its statement, the Pontifical Academy for Life said the change is the visible result of the “social and cultural circumstances that have pushed Italy, together with other countries,” toward the “demographic winter.” Many people, it said, are “now beginning to see all the consequences.” 

It added that the decline in “effective action of family counselling centers highlights this disengagement, which in reality tends to place an increasingly heavy burden on the shoulders of the (single) woman” and leaves “deep personal scars.”

The academy said it is “essential to ensure a broader and more complete analysis of the intense emotional reactions triggered by pregnancy, especially at its beginning.”

It said hospitals may not necessarily be the best place to provide accompaniment and support before a decision to terminate a pregnancy, but added that “precisely for this reason, it is necessary not to abandon the search for more suitable ways and means towards a common goal: accompaniment and support for nascent and conceived life and for families [to] remain the testing ground for an attentive and sensitive society that knows how to construct its future with wisdom and foresight.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

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