A nation turns away from abortion

It's not true that abortion statistics are irreversible. Italy proves it. 
Vincenzina Santoro | 13 September 2010
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As the United Nations, encouraged by the US Administration, presses on with advancing abortion across the globe as a form of family planning – and even a human right – not all countries have embraced this practice. As reported in MercatorNet last year, one major country that is turning away from abortion is Italy. Abortion numbers and rates there have continued on a downward trend for over two decades.

The recently released 2009 report on abortion – which the Ministry of Health presents to Parliament each year – confirms another drop in the number of abortions and in the abortion rate. Abortion, which was legalized in Italy in 1978, reached a peak of 234,801 cases in 1982. In 2009, 116,933 abortions were performed, a decline of 3.6 percent from the previous year – a figure that for the first time was less than half the number in the peak year. The numbers have declined consistently for the last five years.

The abortion rate for women of child-bearing years (15-49), a more meaningful measurement of abortion prevalence, in 2009 showed a result of 8.3 per 1,000 women, a 3.9 percent decline from the previous year. In 1982, the ratio had been 17.2 per 1,000.

Interestingly, abortions have declined for all age segments of child-bearing women and are particularly low for minors especially when compared with other developed countries. For females under age 20, in 2008 the abortion rate was 7.2 per 1,000 in Italy, down from 7.5 the year before, and differed sharply compared with 13.5 for Spain, 15.6 for France (2007 data), and 20.5 for the United States (2004). Only Germany had a lower rate of 5.0 per 1,000.

Observing a divergence in trends, since the mid 1990s the Ministry of Health began disaggregating data to show abortions by both Italian and foreign women in Italy. The abortion rate for foreign women alone has continued to rise since data commenced, and for 2008, the latest data available, foreign women accounted for 33 percent of all abortions in Italy, compared with 10 percent in 1998. Were it not for the foreigners, Italy’s abortion total and abortion rate would be even lower. Compared with 1982, the number of Italian women having recourse to abortion dropped by nearly two-thirds – by 65.2 percent to be exact!

The trends indicate that the most rapid decline in abortions has occurred among the more highly educated, the employed and married women. In 2008, among Italian women having abortions, 45 percent reported not having any children, compared with 33 percent for foreign women. About half of both groups were married.

Data for repeat abortions (second or higher) showed that in 2008 the rate held steady at 27 percent, of which 22 percent was applicable to Italian women and over 37 percent to foreign women. By this yardstick, Italy again compared favorably with such countries as Spain (34 percent), Sweden (38 percent) and the United States (47 percent)

The growing number of foreign women resorting to abortion has been attributed to increased immigration, failed contraception practices, and looser attitudes towards terminating a pregnancy held by women from foreign countries especially by Eastern Europeans who accounted for 52 percent of non-Italian abortions. In 2009, foreigners comprised 7 percent of Italy’s resident population of 60.3 million.

To allow international comparisons, the Italian Ministry of Health report assembled a list showing abortion rates for 19 countries. The compilation, presented below, indicates that there are four European countries which have a lower abortion rate than Italy. However, all of them were reported to have a much higher rate of contraceptive usage.

To determine the latter, recourse to United Nations data showed that for the 2003-2008 period, the contraceptive prevalence rate – defined by the UN as the percentage of women aged 15-49 in union currently using contraceptives – was 60 for Italy, while the other four ranged from 75 to 82. (The rate for the United States was 76 and 84 for the United Kingdom.)


 

Another positive phenomenon in Italy is the rising number of doctors who are declared conscientious objectors. The percentage of doctors who refuse to perform abortions rose from just under 70 percent in 2007 to 71.1 percent in 2008.  The highest share was accounted for by the Lazio Region, which includes the City of Rome, where the proportion rose from 80 percent to 85.6 percent over the same period.

So why do Italian women turn away from abortion, make less use of contraception compared with other Europeans -- but also have a fertility rate that is below the European Union average (1.4 versus 1.5)?

The Ministry of Health report does not present any analysis as this is outside its competence, but does make a passing reference to “socio-cultural issues.” From other sources, it can be observed that in Italy the concept of the traditional family remains strong (divorce rates are lower as are out of wedlock births compared with the rest of the European Union), religious practice is higher than in many other European countries and, unlike many northern European countries, secularism and relativism are not widespread in Italy. The Catholic Church is still influential in shaping morals. Finally, Italians do celebrate life in faith, music, art, and traditions – and a sense of caritas prevails.

Women in Italy, however, do face discrimination in the workplace which helps explain why not only fertility but the employment rate too, is much lower in Italy than in most other European or North American countries. Only 47 percent of working age women were employed in 2008, compared with an average of 59 percent for the European Union.

Professional and non-professional women struggle to cope with practices that are not sanctioned in other developed countries. For example, the prospect of pregnancy – as in the case of a newly married woman who “might” get pregnant – could result in that woman being laid off. Some employers discriminate by letting women go after they return from maternity leave – which is granted by law for 20 weeks – simply because they may feel that a woman with a newborn at home could not be as attentive and productive as previously. This is very different from the United States where the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act provides that women cannot be fired or denied employment or promotions due to pregnancy.

Large industries, where unions secure job protection, may not be guilty of such practices, but most Italian industry is comprised of small and medium-sized companies that function very independently. Simply making maternity-related discrimination illegal could result in more births in a country where abortion and contraception are notably on the wane.

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist in New York. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.

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