Italy considers stricter legislation on surrogacy: Are parenthood rights under threat?

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  • pregnant woman
Published on 2023-08-02 at 10:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Italy, which already has one of the strictest laws on surrogacy, is taking another historical turn. Does this imply new challenges for parenthood and abortion rights? What is the situation like in other countries?

Italy wants to prohibit surrogacy in all circumstances

Fratelli d'Italia (FDI), the far-right party of Giorgia Meloni, the head of the Italian government, intends to step up its policy against surrogacy. On Wednesday, July 26, Italian MPs passed a bill that aims at making the ban on surrogate motherhood stricter. Already banned on Italian soil (the bill extends a 2004 law), surrogacy would also become illegal abroad for Italian citizens. Thus, Italians who violate the law would be liable to prosecution, even if they had resorted to surrogacy in a country where it is allowed.

Although this bill has yet to be validated by the Senate, it is already perceived as an attack on the LGBT+ community in Italy. Parties concerned consider this bill a way to prevent them from becoming parents. Others point out that surrogacy is an alternative for many heterosexual couples unable to have children. This announcement is leading to growing concern. Italy already has one of Europe's most rigid laws against surrogacy. Currently, anyone who "carries out, organizes or publicizes" surrogacy on Italian territory is liable to 3 months to 2 years' imprisonment and a fine of 600,000 to 1 million euros.

What are the risks for parenthood and abortion rights?

In June, the public prosecutor's office in Padua (northern Italy) questioned the birth certificates of children with two mothers. Around thirty birth certificates were challenged. These children were conceived abroad via heterologous fertilization (with donor sperm). This practice is authorized in Italy, but only for heterosexual couples. Padua's public prosecutor's office record only one parent, the biological parent, as having parental authority. Italy still has no law recognizing same-sex parents. Therefore, each region applies its own interpretation. For example, the Court of Cassation has ruled that the non-biological parent must adopt the child in order to be recognized. At the insistence of Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, a member of the extreme right, the measure has become the rule for a growing number of communes. They also received instructions to stop registering same-sex couples as parents, including those who had not undergone surrogacy.

Is that a risk for abortion rights? The election of Giorgia Meloni had raised concerns despite the Head of State's pledge not to change abortion law. It's worth noting that although abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978, it is not widely applied, according to Irene Donadio, head of advocacy at the European branch of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF-EN). The problem is that a majority of doctors refuse to perform abortions. In 2020, 64.6% of gynecologists refused to perform abortions. The situation was only slightly better for the other professions concerned: 44.6% of anesthetists and 36.2% of paramedical staff objected on the grounds of "trust".

Other countries' stand regarding surrogacy and abortion

In France, the law on bioethics, adopted in 2021, became a huge debate. Should surrogacy be authorized? The various organizations interviewed were divided, as was public opinion. Surrogacy raises ethical issues. For some, it commodifies a woman's body and her child, especially if remuneration is involved. But even in the absence of remuneration, they find it impossible to consider surrogacy as ordinary work. Others recommend surrogacy "in certain cases", or at least a more extended reflection on the issue. However, the French government remains on its stand regarding the prohibition of surrogacy, which is also the case in other countries, such as Germany, Spain and Luxembourg. Conversely, it is authorized in Canada, some American states, the Netherlands, Greece, Denmark and India.

Surrogacy in Belgium

In 2021, a bill favoring surrogacy was tabled but failed to achieve consensus. The issue is back on the table, with the Belgian Bioethics Committee now in favor of a law legalizing surrogacy. Belgium's position is singular. For more than 20 years, 3 centers have been practicing surrogacy under very strict conditions, and according to numerous criteria, including the following: "comfort" surrogacy remains forbidden, obligation to know the surrogate mother well (sister, friend...), no remuneration, etc. Ghent University Hospital has been open to same-sex couples (since 2011). Brussels' CHU Saint-Pierre and Liège's CHR de la Citadelle authorize surrogacy for foreign couples as well. These centers leverage the absence of a legal framework to exist, with no abuses noted, according to their findings. The Belgian Bioethics Committee now wants to create a legal framework to protect all parties involved.

Is the right to abortion threatened?

Just over a year ago, the Supreme Court overturned the federal Roe vs. Wade decision, which guaranteed the right to abortion nationwide. Since then, each state has set its own abortion policy. More than a dozen states have declared a total ban. Only a handful (Alaska, Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, etc.) still allow abortion. It is also allowed in most European countries. In other countries, however, the framework is stricter, or the practice is banned altogether (Suriname, Madagascar, Egypt, etc.). Brazil, Chile, Libya and Gabon authorize abortion if the mother's life is endangered. Japan, Finland, India and Great Britain allow abortion only for "socio-economic" reasons.

In June 2023, Malta went from a total ban to an initial authorization, but under very strict conditions: in case of a threat to the mother's life and a non-viable fetus (if it cannot survive outside the uterus). Until now, Malta was the only European country where abortion was illegal. But its law is a disappointment for abortion advocates.

Many believe that the right to abortion is at risk. Even in countries where abortion is permitted, doctors' refusal and/or lack of resources can complicate women's journeys. In Italy, for example, "conscientious objections" are commonplace. The same is true of Hungary, which tightened its abortion law again in September 2022. However, abortion has been authorized in Hungary since 1952. These changes have increased the vigilance of international associations, for whom these rights are first and foremost human rights.