An Italian hospital’s insistence that applicants for two gynaecology vacancies be prepared to carry out abortions, or face dismissal, has rekindled a church versus state debate on women’s reproductive rights.
Under Italy's 1978 abortion legislation, any doctor in the public service may decline to carry out a pregnancy termination on grounds of "conscientious objection". The percentage of conscientious objectors in Italy is about 70 per cent nationwide, and as high as almost 90 per cent in southern regions such as Sicily and Molise.
The issue returned to newspaper front pages this week when the San Camillo hospital in Rome advertised positions for two gynaecologists. The hospital stipulated that those appointed be willing to carry out abortions and stated that a failure to do so within the first six months of their appointment would place them at risk of being fired.
In the face of complaints from the Italian Catholic Bishops' Conference that the San Camillo job proposal represented a denial of a doctor's right to conscientious objection, the Lazio regional governor, Nicola Zingaretti, defended the terms of the job description.
He pointed out that under the 1978 law, which introduced legalised abortion in Italy, certain authorised medical institutions were legally obliged to guarantee a woman’s right to a pregnancy termination, adding: “Conscientious objection is 100 per cent respected. In this case, we are ensuring the application of the law by offering these two places, two amongst more than 2,200 doctors who work in this sector. Remember, this service is tightly financed in order to provide pregnancy terminations.”
The Lazio governor's position was endorsed by lawyer Lorenzo d'Avack, vice-president of the Italian bioethics committee for family rights, who told Turin daily La Stampa: "At first glance, this [job advertisement] might seem like a discrimination but it is not. The law . . . enshrines the obligation [for certain medical structures] to have available doctors willing to perform an abortion."
Prof Alberto Gambino, however, president of the anti-abortion Science and Life Association, agrees with the Italian bishops, arguing that the job proposal denied a "constitutional right" and was offensive to doctors' dignity.
“Look, what we really need to do is have a prolonged reflection on just why so many doctors refuse to carry out abortions,” he said.
The high percentage of conscientious objectors in Italy contrasts with the medical profession in other European countries, with 10 per cent of doctors in the UK taking that position, 7 per cent France and none in Sweden. Last April, the Council of Europe claimed that, in the context of obtaining a safe abortion, women's rights were violated in Italy by the high number of conscientious objectors.
The council’s social rights committee found the current Italian situation violated both the right of women to protection of health and the doctors’ right to dignity, pointing out that in many Italian hospitals, even where there was a gynaecology unit, there were few or sometimes no doctors willing to perform abortions.