World

Women in Italy shocked to find their names on grave markers for aborted fetuses

An Italian women's advocacy organization has filed a complaint with the public prosecutor of Rome asking for an investigation after dozens of women who had abortions say their names were put on small crosses in a cemetery where their aborted fetuses were reportedly buried without their knowledge.

Rome prosecutor's office investigating after women say they did not consent to burial of fetuses

Francesca is among dozens of women in Italy who say they were shocked to learn their aborted fetuses had been buried and their own names put on small crosses in part of a Roman cemetery dubbed the Garden of Angels. (Differenza Donna Association)

When Francesca joined a group of friends on a fact-finding visit to a cemetery in Rome last week, she was not prepared to find a small, white cross with her name on it.

The friends had learned through Facebook that a woman from Rome who had an abortion had later discovered her name on a similar cross in the sprawling Prima Porta Cemetery in the Flaminio district on the northern outskirts of the capital city.

Francesca, a 36-year-old body movement instructor who asked that her last name not be published, had an abortion in September 2019 after learning her fetus had a fatal heart malformation and would not survive. But she never expected that someone would bury her fetus and mark the site with a cross bearing her name.

"Nobody told me the fetus would be buried, nobody asked me if I wanted a burial and nobody got my permission to put my name on a cross," she said. "I can't tell you what a horrendous feeling it is to find a cross with your name on it."

Public prosecutor investigating

This week, Italian feminist organization Differenza Donna filed a formal complaint with the public prosecutor of Rome on behalf of dozens of women who were named on small crosses in an area of the graveyard referred to as the Garden of Angels.

The public prosecutor has opened a file against "unknown persons," according to Italian media reports.  

In a Facebook post last month, a woman named Marta Loi wrote about her surprise at learning her name was posted on a cross in the cemetery. 

Marta Loi posted this photo of a small cross with her name on it that she said had been put up at Prima Porta Cemetery in Rome without her knowledge. CBC has blurred the name on the cross behind Loi's. (Marta Loi/Facebook)

Loi wrote on Facebook that when she had her abortion, she was told by hospital staff that if she wanted a funeral and burial for her fetus, she would have to fill out a form. She didn't.

About seven months later, she wrote, she began wondering what happened to the remains of her fetus and called the hospital, which told her the remains were still being held by the mortuary in case she changed her mind about a funeral and that they would take care of them. Later, she found the cross with her name on it.

She posted a photo of her cross, which is among 200 or so, some dating as far back as 2004. Many are made of wood, have rotted and fallen over.

Women say they didn't consent to burial

"I get chills every time I talk about it," said Elisa Ercoli, head of Differenza Donna, which filed the complaint and is calling for an investigation into the matter.

Elisa Ercoli is head of the Italian feminist association Differenza Donna, which has filed a formal complaint with the public prosecutor of Rome on behalf of dozens of women who learned their names had been put on small crosses at the cemetery. (Megan Williams/CBC)

"We have fought for years in Italy for women to have the right to give their own children their last name [without the father's permission], a right they are still largely denied," she said.

"Now this – the public shaming of women who have gone through a legal, therapeutic abortion, an intimate and private choice of self-determination that no one has the right to comment on. This is a very serious act of institutional violence."

Italian law stipulates the burial of fetuses from therapeutic abortions from 20 to 28 weeks can take place upon written request from the mother or parents within 24 hours. Yet, the women on whose behalf Differenza Donna is advocating say they did not receive clear information about the consent process or give written consent.

As a result of the discovery in Rome, authorities are now looking into "babies never born" sections of public cemeteries in other parts of the country. Graves of fetuses buried without women's permission were discovered in Turin in 2013 and removed.

Volunteers 'show up with a bag'

Cathy La Torre, a lawyer representing some of the women, said if women don't request a burial, often what happens is that hospitals or local health authorities strike agreements with ultra-conservative Catholic associations to bury the remains as a way to save on costs. Under Italian law, fetal material from 20 to 28 weeks must be buried; up to 20 weeks, the material is incinerated.

"Volunteers from these groups show up with a bag and cover the costs to have the abortion material buried. Then women find their names on a little cross," said La Torre.

One such group is Difendere la Vita con Maria, or Protect Life with Mary, which describes on its website that it undertakes "burying fetuses regardless of whether a family has requested it" and to place crosses on them. 

Francesca says the crosses are emblematic of a system that is set on punishing women who have abortions. (Differenza Donna )

Maurizio Gagliardini, a parish priest who runs the association, says the group is not responsible for putting the names of the women on the crosses, which he agrees is a violation of privacy. His group, he said, only puts the date of the abortion and a number code on the cross.

"I think the pro-life movement should be allowed to express itself in a democracy," said Gagliardini. "We are Catholics, but we don't go to the hospital to preach. Crosses on buried fetuses, yes, but names of women, no."

He said his association has no formal agreement with Rome hospitals but is a group of volunteers that provides a service that some women formally request, namely, burying fetuses.

He admits the group puts crosses atop buried fetal material without women's written permission but said he believes the Italian law permits it if a woman does not claim the material within 24 hours.

But Francesca said finding her full name on a small cross in the Rome cemetery is merely the last straw in what she calls a "system of physical and psychological torture" of women who seek abortions in Italy.

"Everyone is now up in arms about the privacy issue," she said, "but the real issue is that Italy does not permit women to have abortions in a dignified way."

Health care workers object to abortion

While women in Italy won the right to abortion in 1978, the law gives doctors and nurses the right to conscientiously object to performing them. Because so many hospitals in Italy are Catholic, the vast majority of health care workers choose to object, not necessarily for religious reasons, but because some fear that if having performed or assisted in abortions is on their work record, they won't be hired in Catholic hospitals.

Francesca said in Italy, there is no readily available information for women seeking abortions. It took her weeks to locate a doctor – and a nurse who worked the same shift – willing to perform the procedure. She said she was forced to have multiple ultrasounds where technicians urged her to look at her daughter's "beautiful face" and was insulted by health care workers at the public hospital.

She says the abortion itself was like "a horror film" and that she was denied an epidural and anesthesia.

"Putting our names on crosses is merely the final step in a system that is set on punishing women who have abortions."

About the Author

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.

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