Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.
Rome, Italy – The words on the crucifix read Francesca Rossi*. Yet Francesca Rossi was standing right in front of it, alive.
Many other wooden crosses bearing only a female name and a date were also stuck in the ground nearby, some dating back as far as 2004.
The date on Rossi’s was 2019, the year she had terminated a six-month pregnancy with an abortion.
Buried underneath were the remains of fetuses.
“This is pure violence,” she told Al Jazeera, describing how the scene has haunted her dreams since last week when she first came across the “graves” in a cemetery on the outskirts of Rome.
Rossi had never agreed for the fetus to be buried there; nor had she agreed for her name to be used in such a way.
“In Italy, you give birth to a child, and they will have the father’s name; you have an abortion, and they will have the name of the mother,” she said.
Rossi visited section 108 of Flaminio cemetery days after another woman had described her experience.
The woman found her name on a cross after reading an article about the so-called “gardens of angels” in a local newspaper.
She posted the details in a Facebook post, which led to the movement.
At least 130 women are now asking prosecutors to investigate who was behind the burials. Meanwhile, women’s rights associations such as Differenza Donna have been gathering testimonies to coordinate joint legal action.
The scandal has shed light on the stigma Italian women face, as well as the barriers to their reproductive rights, even though the right to abortion has been legal since 1978.
Women have the legal right to end a pregnancy up to 90 days old.
After three months, as in Rossi’s case, abortions can take place if the child’s birth or fetal abnormalities pose a severe risk to the woman’s life and mental health.
But over the years, Roman Catholic groups have been conducting fetus burials by striking agreements with local public facilities, including hospitals and cemeteries.
Associations such as Difendere la vita con Maria – Defend life with Mary – are liaising with about 20 hospitals across Italy after having signed “collection and storage” deals.
At their own expense, these groups sometimes provide the hospital’s morgue with a dedicated refrigerator for the remains.
They justify the practice by their own interpretation of a law which states that if an abortion takes place after 20 weeks of pregnancy, family members or “someone on their behalf” can request – within 24 hours – to bury the fetus.
If such a request is not put forward, the local health authority is responsible.
Catholic groups interpret “someone on their behalf” as an authorisation to collect and bury a fetus regardless of the woman’s consent.
“The fetus is an individual, it’s no one’s property, hence it holds rights as much as the woman,” said Stefano Di Battista, spokesman for Difendere la vita con Maria.
But Italian law states an individual gains legal standing following their birth, and not before.
Di Battista said his association was not involved in the burials at Flaminio cemetery.
San Camillo Hospital, the facility where the woman denouncing the practice online terminated her pregnancy, and the branch of the Rome municipality that deals with cemeteries also denied any responsibility.
‘The ultimate punishment’
Rossi said discovering her name at the cemetery felt like “the ultimate punishment” in a painful journey.
She had already experienced stigma and feelings of abandonment.
“I am irritated that the first comments by politicians focused on [the breach of] privacy, while we should be way more scandalised by how women get physically and psychologically tortured in hospitals,” she said.
In September 2019, Rossi decided to terminate her pregnancy after discovering the fetus had a serious heart problem.
“The psychiatrist of the hospital kept trying to change my mind. They kept showing me by ultrasounds the shape of the baby, to hear the sound of the heartbeat to make me change my mind as if the pain was not enough already,” she said.
Rossi was given four abortion pills, with no information, she said, and with no one assisting the seven-hour ordeal.
She and her husband later paid for themselves to go to trauma therapy following the abortion; no mental health support was provided.
“I was in no man’s land,” she said.
Rossi’s story reflects the challenges faced by women and the medical community against the backdrop of increasingly influential Catholic movements, particularly in areas that vote for right-wing parties.
For instance, the local council of Verona, a stronghold of the far-right League party, passed a motion in 2018 allowing the use of public funds for anti-abortion rights programmes while the mayor declared the city “pro-abortion rights”.
Also in 2018, Member of Parliament Maurizio Gasparri of Forza Italia proposed to give legal rights to fetuses, which would rule as illegal any termination of pregnancy. Parliament is still reviewing his proposal.
In June, the region of Umbria abolished the one-day hospital treatment of the RU-486 abortion pill, forcing women to stay in hospital for three days to “recover”. Known as a “medical abortion”, in many other countries this procedure does not require hospital stays of any length, and can often be carried out at home.
To complicate matters, a growing number of doctors and anaesthesiologists have reportedly objected to perform abortions as the practice goes against their religious or personal beliefs, as the law permits.
Seventy percent of gynaecologists object, as well as 46.3 percent of anaesthesiologists, according to Italy’s health ministry.
Objectors can pose a challenge to non-objectors who may find themselves alone and overloaded, both technically and emotionally.
“Of course the majority do not want [to perform abortions] – it’s a lot of troubles: you are stigmatised, exhausted, always in the eye of the storm, doing a massive effort, for no additional money,” said Marina Toschi, member of the pro-choice group, Italian network contraception and abortion (RICA).
After retiring, Toschi returned to perform abortions in the Marche region where there is a 90 percent objection.
Silvio Viale, a gynaecologist in the Sant’Anna hospital in Turin, however, blames a lack of dedicated services.
“There is no political will to create a dedicated sector with qualitative and appropriated services for abortion,” said Viale, who spent years advocating for Italian hospitals to offer medical abortions to women.
He added that pro-abortion rights movements have been emboldened by this void, combined with the lack of action by left-wing pro-choice movements.
“We live in a Catholic country where abortion is a taboo, a theme to do political ideology with, but for which no one is willing to dirty the hands.”