It didn’t take long for the debate in San Marino to turn toxic. Shortly after the pre-referendum campaign on legalizing abortion was officially launched, the walls of the small, landlocked country in central Italy were slapped with posters by anti-abortion activists depicting a child with Down’s Syndrome. The caption read: “I am an anomaly, does that mean I have fewer rights than you?”
Other posters featured a picture of a fetus along with the message: “I am a boy even at 12 weeks, save me!”
There was widespread outrage in the population of 33,000 in response to the billboards, including from those who are against lifting the abortion ban. But if it’s enough to turn the tide in extremely conservative San Marino, where abortion was criminalized by a law that hasn’t changed since 1865, it will only be known after the Sept. 26 plebiscite.
“The atmosphere is very ugly, people avoid eye contact in the street,” said Karen Pruccoli, president of the Union of Sammarinese Women (UDS), the association promoting the referendum. “Instead of having a climate of dialogue on a complex and delicate subject, it is extremely fierce.”
The population of San Marino, one of the last places in Europe to have a total ban on abortion, will vote whether to allow abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Beyond the twelfth week, the procedure would only be allowed if the life of the mother is in danger or if there are fetal abnormalities.
Having an abortion in San Marino is punishable by three to six years in prison, forcing women to terminate their pregnancies in Italy, where abortion was legalized after a referendum in 1978.
“They have to pay a lot for it, between € 1,500 and € 2,000,” Pruccoli said. “Then they return home knowing that they are considered criminals. It’s mental torture. “
Women rarely talk about their experiences due to the risks involved and the stigma surrounding abortion, although some have shared written testimonies anonymously with UDS. One woman, already a mother of two, said she terminated her third pregnancy after discovering abnormalities in the fetus. Another mother of one said she ended her second pregnancy out of fear that the fetus might have been damaged by the medication she had been taking for postpartum depression. “There are countless reasons that can lead a woman to have an abortion and no one should judge,” she said. A 25-year-old woman said she was raped at 17. She did not get pregnant, but if she had, she said she would have chosen to have an abortion.
It is unknown if a woman was jailed in San Marino for having an abortion, although pro-abortion activists found records of abortion trials in the 1960s and 1970s during which the women were described as “crazy” or “useless.” . “They were depicted using the worst terms or as mentally unbalanced,” Pruccoli said.
San Marino is a long time behind when it comes to women’s rights. A referendum in 1982, the first held in the state, to repeal a law that removed citizenship from women who married a foreigner was defeated. The referendum campaign was as powerful as the current one, with fathers voting against daughters and brothers against sisters. The law was eventually repealed by parliament, but not until 2000.
Women were only granted the right to vote in 1964, while divorce was introduced in 1986.
The first two women were elected to the government in 1974. Four years later, the third, Maria Lea Pedini-Angelini, was elected. In 1981, Pedini-Angelini became the first woman in San Marino to be elected Regent Captain or Head of State.
“We were a rarity,” Pedini-Angelini said. “But it was at that moment that we began to talk about everything that was missing in our country in terms of rights and social benefits, everything was missing.”
There have been attempts in the last two decades to legalize abortion, but all were rejected by a succession of mostly conservative governments. The state is governed by the Christian Democratic Party, a political force with close ties to the Catholic Church. The party has asked people to vote against legalizing abortion.
“There has been a total failure of the political class to address this issue for the last 40 years,” said Francesca Nicolini, a physician. “They ignore it because they are afraid of losing votes.”
If the referendum is successful, then the challenge will be to ensure that the result becomes legislation that also limits the number of moral objectors recruited into the health system. Despite the fact that abortion is legal in Italy, women still have difficulties accessing the procedure due to the high number of gynecologists who refuse to terminate pregnancies for moral reasons.
More than 3,000 signatures were collected in support of the referendum, more than double the legal requirement.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm for it, especially among young people, men and women. [alike]”Said Vanessa Muratori, a former parliamentarian who in 2003 was the first politician to introduce a bill to legalize abortion.
Pro-abortion activists are hopeful that the high level of support will translate into a victory on September 26. They also take comfort in the examples of largely Catholic Ireland, which lifted its abortion ban through a referendum in 2018, and Mexico, where it was decriminalized by the supreme court last week.
But with anti-abortion activists upping the ante in recent days, the race is close.
“San Marino has no obligation to adopt the laws of its border countries and does not need to depend on the bad example of Italy,” said Adolfo Morganti, who belongs to the Comitato Uno di Noi, the group that campaigns against abortion.
Instead, she argued, the discussion should focus on adopting programs that help women carry out their pregnancies.
But if his opponents win, he said the result would be accepted.
“Catholics have rarely started revolutions; we will try to heal our wounds,” he added.