Activists in San Marino fight fierce campaigns over historic abortion vote

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By Catherine Bennett
People view pro and anti-abortion campaign posters on September 10, 2021 in San Marino at the start of the referendum campaign
People view pro and anti-abortion campaign posters on September 10, 2021 in San Marino at the start of the referendum campaign   -  Copyright  BRIGITTE HAGEMANN/AFP or licensors

In a small town hall in one of the tiniest countries in Europe, a passionate debate over abortion is raging.

Activists on stage grapple for the microphone, while audience members stand up to interject.

“We can ban abortion, but it still happens. Abortion exists in San Marino, and unsafe abortions exist!” declares Gloria Giardi on stage, to applause from the audience.

In the Republic of San Marino, nestled on the Apennine mountains inside Italy, campaigning is underway ahead of a referendum on September 26, which will ask its 33,000 citizens if they want to legalise abortion.

Giardi is a member of the Union of Sammarinese Women (UDS), a group of feminist activists that have been trying for years to propose legislation on abortion, only to have conservative governments dismiss each attempt.

UDS campaigners are hoping to take advantage of the momentum created by other European countries recently legalising abortion, like Ireland and Gibraltar.

“We have been waiting 43 years for this law. We shouldn’t have to propose a referendum – it should already be law,” she continues.

San Marino is one of only four European countries where abortion is completely illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, severe foetal abnormality or when the mother’s life is at risk.

Just as in Andorra, Malta, and Vatican City, women in San Marino face prison time if they try to get an abortion or if they help someone else procure an abortion. Many Sammarinese women who want to terminate a pregnancy travel to Italy, where abortion was legalised in 1978.

But the situation isn’t always easy over the border. Italian doctors have the right to "conscientious objection" and to refuse to carry out the procedure. As many as 71% of gynaecologists in Italy are registered as conscientious objectors – meaning that even in Italy, women can struggle to find somewhere to get an abortion before it is too late.

‘These women are alone’

Laura (Euronews is using a pseudonym to protect her identity) found out she was pregnant at the age of 39. She already had two children. At later check-ups, doctors told her they couldn’t detect a heartbeat. Laura wasn’t ready to have another child and was anxious about the uncertain health of the foetus. She decided to get an abortion, for which she had to go to Rimini, an hour away by bus in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

“I had to do a series of tests in Rimini that I paid for, then about 10 days later they rang me to tell me when to come in for the procedure,” she explained in an anonymous testimony given to UDS. The abortion itself cost her €1,000.

“I think it’s horrendous that in 2021 a Sammarinese woman is forced to go through the Italian health system and has to pay her own way,” she said.

UDS activists have denounced the "hypocrisy" of a law that bans the procedure but looks the other way when women travel just a few kilometres away to get it done, for a cost of between €1,000 to €2,000. Because San Marino is not in the European Union, Sammarinese women cannot benefit from free healthcare in Italy.

Francesca Nicolini is a GP and cardiologist in San Marino. She told Euronews that the financial crisis and then Italy’s subsequent banking crisis had a huge impact on personal wealth in San Marino.

“People’s salaries are low now. Many people don’t have enough money to pay for an abortion through the Italian health system,” she said. “But money isn’t the only problem. Making the decision to abort is very difficult, and there’s no support here. These women are alone. That is the worst thing.”

‘We always get there in the end’

San Marino is historically a Catholic country, and the church still has a strong influence, even at a political level. “We celebrate life, right from the beginning to the end,” Antonella Mularoni, a campaigner for the opposition side Uno di Noi, told the audience at the debate, “including for those who aren’t able to defend themselves”.

One of the flashpoints in the referendum campaigns has been a controversial poster from Uno di Noi, which shows a young man with Down’s syndrome. The text asks, "I’m an anomaly. Does that mean I have fewer rights than you?" Just days after campaigning officially began, there are gaps on notice boards across the country where the poster has been ripped down.

Yes campaigners condemned Uno di Noi for their “instrumentalisation” of a person with disabilities, and even those on the No side distanced themselves from the message. Teodoro Lonfernini, a politician from the right-wing Sammarinese Christian Democratic Party, described the poster as “inappropriate”, adding, “I say yes to life, but no to this kind of messaging”.

The poster also claimed that the new law would grant women the right to abort up until the 9th month of pregnancy in case of disability. Nicolini scoffs at the idea. “Abortion at nine months is medically impossible,” she says. “It is called pre-term delivery, because at that stage, the foetus is usually able to survive outside of the womb.”

Even Sammarinese activists themselves have been taken aback at the ferocity of the campaign. But who will win is anyone’s guess: there have been no opinion polls in the country, and neither side wants to make a prediction about which way the vote will fall. UDS activists believe that the vote is roughly split along lines of age and religion, with young, secular voters more likely to vote to legalise abortion.

If San Marino votes yes, the law will immediately come into force. At the town hall debate, Giardi says that it is just a matter of time before the country’s laws catch up with neighbouring Italy. “San Marino will eventually fall in line with European legislation,” she says. “We always get there in the end.”