28 October 2022
The newly formed right-wing government headed by Giorgia Meloni, the first ever prime minister in the history of the Italian Republic, has appointed the ultraconservative Eugenia Roccella for the Ministry of Family, Natality and Equal Opportunity.
The Meloni cabinet has drawn criticism on the merit of several controversial ministerial nominees. Given that the canonical strategic ministries of Economy and Foreign Affairs have been entrusted to more moderate pro-European figures, the installing government have already made it clear where they intend to embattle by rebranding several other ministries. So, for example to the Ministry of Education, University and Research is being added the term of Merit; the Minister of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies is joined by the misused term of Food Sovereignty. Likewise, the wording Natality has been added to Roccella’s ministry.
Roccella is replacing Elena Bonetti of the liberal party Italia Viva, appointed by the former Draghi cabinet. Bonetti was in mid-October in Berlin at the meeting of G7 ministers responsible for equal opportunities where she stated the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment as cornerstones for “an equitable and inclusive sustainable development.”
From Minister Roccella however it is likely we will hear another tune altogether as her numerous hard-line political statements to date are foreshadowing
An adherent to conservative ethics and a spokesperson for the Catholic forum Family Day in 2007, Roccella has expressed an affinity with the conservative Catholic circles and has championed on several occasions her reactionary stance on euthanasia policies, her objection to the contraceptive pill RU 486 slating it as “a deceptive fairy-tale” and “entry-level abortion within the household” , as well as her support to further restrict artificial insemination laws.
Roccella, who was first elected to parliament in 2008, has only joined Fratelli d´Italia this year, having migrated across the right political spectrum several times. She had been nominated once as undersecretary for the Minister of Health during the fourth Berlusconi cabinet in which time she supported the reimposition of the ban on pre-implantation diagnosis on the embryo. She had subsequently been a member of the short lived NCD (Nuovo Centro Destra) before becoming in 2015 a founding member of another centre-right splinter party, the IDeA (Identitä e Azione).
If her recent convergence with Fratelli d'Italia might be seen as the opportunistic move following the party's explosive ascent over the past two years, Roccella's political curve and ultra-conservative postulates could only be sublimated in the most reactionary political platform the Country had to offer.
An encounter with Fratelli d´Italia was only inevitable, or was it?
Eugenia Maria Roccella Cavallari born 1953 in Bologna is the daughter of Franco Roccella – a founder and influential representative of the Radical Party in its early stage – and Wanda Raheli – a painter, politically active in the roman feminist circles.
Graduated in modern literature and a research doctor in Italian Studies at the University La Sapienza of Rome, Eugenia Roccella had been precociously active in her youth in all the themes espoused by the feminist associations and the Radicals in the 70s. As leader of the MLD (Movimento di Liberazione della Donna) she championed the emancipation of the woman´s body and supported the struggles for the liberalisation of abortion and divorce in the most socially conflictual period of post-war Italy.
However, after an extended period of personal distance from political activism Roccella seemingly waded into a critique of civil rights movements and cosmopolitanism, therefore leaving the Radical Party by now, according to her, “idle and incapable of considering the dangers of absolute freedom posed on the individuum”. Her crossing into the catholic conservative camp in the 90s brought her close to the centre-right formations under the influence of Berlusconi on whom she authored a political biography in 1997.
Active as a journalist she became editorialist for the Catholic Avvenire, and has authored and co-authored a number of publications which connote her remarkable political transformation resulting in a shift toward an entrenched, reactionary conception of the family and of civil rights. In 2001 she authored Dopo il femminismo, an historical critique and lambasting of modern feminism, while in 2015 she published a denunciation of heterologous fertilisation in modern societies who, allegedly, legitimise of eugenics.
Certainly, we are all entitled to a change of opinion, and it may happen that we feel we are right in it until at onetime we are proven wrong. However, Roccella´s ideological makeover is remarkable and lives up to the best political turncoats of which Italian politics seems to be so fond of. When she declares that “feminists have never considered abortion as a right” she is not having a change of mind, but she is evidently gaslighting and denying her own political involvement in the past.
Since its conception in 1978, law experts and feminists have lamented the intrinsic vulnerability of the abortion law 194 for its formulation and the predictable obstruction of conservative doctors
Italy liberalised abortion in 1978 after years of feminist struggles, parliamentary proposals by the former PSI (Partito Socialista Italiano) and successful popular initiatives by the Radical Party. The current abortion laws are relatively in line with most western European countries. As in Germany the abortion on request is allowed until the 12th gestational week and can only be performed afterward in case of health hazard to the mother or due to foetal anomalies. However, although abortion is granted on paper, access to it is de facto difficult in Italy where, according to the health ministry reports, conscientious objectors made up on average 65% of gynaecologists in 2020 with peaks in several southern regions and in South Tyrol.
Percentage of objecting gynecologists in Italian regions, 2020. /source: Ministry of Health
It is observed that the high number of objectors among the medical personnel is also the consequence of career pressure insofar as doctors fear career cuts when opting for practicing abortions. A circumstance already denounced by resolutions of the European Parliament.
Indeed, the Law 194/78 in Article 9 establishes that medical personnel may exercise their right to objection where this does not endanger a woman´s life. Law 194 also requires a mandatory period of 7 days between first pre-abortion consultation and the procedure, the longest among the European countries that enforce it. As of 2020, 5.4 abortions are performed every 1000 people, a rate similar to Germany´s, but in clear decline for several years straight – today the total number of in-hospital abortion is roughly half that of two decades ago.
Giorgia Meloni´s gaze is increasingly directed at her ideological allies in Europe, above all Poland
FdI (Fratelli d´Italia) is closely observing the Polish government led by the national-conservative PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), with which they share the leadership of the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists Party). Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, having essentially outlawed all forms of voluntary interruption of pregnancy since 2021. Virtually all abortions are carried illegally or sought after abroad with enormous risks and expenses.
/source: abort-report.eu, 2020
At a party rally in the town of Genoa this past summer Meloni declared she intended “to give women who think abortion is the only choice the right to make a different choice” thus refuting Italy has a problem with fair access to abortions and surreptitiously implying that, on the contrary, they might be rather forced upon.
Right before the elections in September, Meloni also brushed off accusations from the pro-choice camp and assured Italian women she would not scrap Law 194 but ambiguously stated she would only want to fine-tune it by applying it more integrally, starting with prevention. It is however not clear what this would entail in a Country where sexual education is not mandatory in school curricula.
In a recent article on La Stampa Minister Roccella herself has reiterated the Prime Minister´s vows to steer away from Law 194 and having no intention of changing it, adding that if anything she would not even have the legislative power to do so.
However, as the government has just taken office this week, a swift clampdown on abortion rights seems to be already in the cards. A bill has already been laid down by Maurizio Gasparri (Forza Italia) – the vice-president of the Senate – with the intent to impair Law 194 by stripping it indirectly of its effect. If passed in the two chambers – where the government holds a clear majority – the law would as a matter of fact modify the Article 1 of the Civil Code conferring full legal capacity to the embryo and thus invalidating the right to any voluntary termination of pregnancy.
The idiosyncratic political career of Roccella and her Machiavellian U-turns should make her ministerial profile indigestible to any vaguely moderate voter and are certain to foster fierce opposition from those who would want to defend civil rights in Italy over the next five years.
Apparently for now Roccella’s history and moral decalogue make her one of the ideal standard bearers in Meloni´s posse and a resource for a ministry which the ideological right perceives to be strategic in a country with one of the lowest birth-rates in Europe and a fast-ageing population.
Text and illustration: Andrea Briscoli
Photo material: Paola Agosti / Open-Source