ROME — The southwestern corner of Flaminio Cemetery, Italy’s largest graveyard, is filled with white crosses popping out of the bare earth. Most of them carry a small black rectangle, each with a date and a woman’s name.
But the names on the tombs do not belong to the corpses buried beneath them. They are the names of women who have had abortions, and the tombs hold fetal tissue from those abortions. Many of the fetuses were buried without the women’s consent, but with their full names on display.
When Francesca, a 36-year-old teacher living in Italy’s capital, saw her own name and the date Dec. 23, 2019, among the graves, she almost fainted. “The pain I felt in that moment reawakened a year-long trauma. And I suddenly cried all the tears I had in my body,” she tells The Lily.
Francesca’s grave is just one among the thousands in Italy’s “fields of angels,” corners of cemeteries devoted to the burial of aborted fetuses. They’re generally managed as a form of charity by Catholic, antiabortion groups across Italy. But the latest developments, which advocates say are an extreme form of the practice, have become newsworthy across the world as the abortion debate rages on. In the United States, the issue has come to the forefront as antiabortion groups cheer the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who they hope will roll back abortion rights.
In Italy, the burials aren’t technically unlawful. They are permitted under a 1990 law adapted from one dating back to 1939, which was established under dictator Benito Mussolini. The current law, which applies to miscarriages and abortions, states that if the fetuses are less than 20 weeks old, parents have 24 hours to claim the remains. If no request is submitted, their right to ownership ceases to apply, and local health authorities may take charge of burials. Since the 1990 law passed, it has been common for third parties to stipulate agreements with hospitals to handle the disposal of the fetuses.
The woman’s privacy, however, is protected by a 1978 law that made abortion legal. For Francesca, who is being identified by her first name because of ongoing litigation related to the unauthorized burial, this wasn’t just a matter of privacy. Seeing her name on that cross felt like a punishment for her act.
“It was like a public message to let everybody know not only what I did, but that I also wasn’t a good mother and I abandoned it, charging someone else with the responsibility to bury it,” she says.
Francesca had been moved by curiosity to go to the cemetery after reading a Facebook post at the end of September. In the post, a fellow Roman woman said she refused to claim her aborted fetal tissue from a hospital in Rome. Seven months later, she wrote, she found out the remains had been taken by strangers and buried without her consent.
The post went viral, with more than 10,000 shares; other women said the same thing happened to them. The backlash has become something like the new Italian #MeToo movement.
Elisa Ercoli, president of Differenza Donna, a Rome-based feminist organization, says that the day after that initial post went viral, she began receiving dozens of calls from women reporting similar episodes. “We were aware of the existence of fetus cemeteries, but nothing like what we witnessed at Flaminio, where full names are publicly exposed and women’s privacy violated,” Ercoli says.
By early October, she says her organization had heard from 130 women who demanded prosecutors open an investigation into who was behind the public burials. The group filed a legal complaint, citing violations of sensitive personal data.
“It was an attack on all of us, an episode of institutional violence that made us realize how many obstacles we still try to overcome on a daily basis despite the legalization of abortion in Italy in 1978,” Ercoli says.
In a country where the Catholic Church has a prominent role in society, Christian and far-right antiabortion groups have lobbied for decades to create dedicated cemetery areas for fetuses, often finding the support of public institutions.
The Catholic organization Association Defend Life With Mary (ADVM) is one of the most prominent such groups. Maurizio Gagliardini, a parish priest who is president of the organization, calls the burial of fetal tissue a “charitable civil mission.” “These bodies need to be respected like the remains of any human being,” he tells The Lily.
Since 1995, ADVM has buried more than 100,000 embryos across 60 Italian cities, stipulating agreements with hospitals in more than seven regions, according to Gagliardini. A crowdsourced map, put together by feminist activist Jennifer Guerra, locates about 50 graveyards around the country, mostly in the north. But activists believe the real figure is much higher.
Gagliardini says he was “surprised,” however, by the news that some of these burials put women’s full names on display. He says organizations like his usually include a registration code beneath the cross; people who want to verify the name at the hospital may be able to, but not publicly so.
“We bury them discreetly through a small ceremony to dignify them as humans, but we don’t hide either, because what we do is not illegal,” Gagliardini says, referring to the 1990 law that allows the burials.
According to Alessandro Capriccioli, a left-wing councilman of the Lazio region, where Rome is located, the ambiguity of the law is the problem — it doesn’t explicitly endow any individual with the authority to carry out burials.
“No fetus should be buried without the woman’s consent. This is an ethical and moral matter, not just legal,” says Capriccioli, who, together with councilwoman Marta Bonafoni, has recently advanced a local law change that would ensure that only women explicitly requesting burials would receive them. It would also ban religious symbols in such burials.
For Ercoli, this national debate shouldn’t just focus on the “fields of angels.” Instead, she hopes it will reignite a discussion about women’s rights in the country more broadly, as well as highlight the stigma regarding access to safe abortions. Seven out of 10 gynecologists in Italy are objectors — meaning they refuse to perform abortions because of their personal beliefs. Women in Rome can access therapeutic abortions, which are performed when the mother’s or baby’s health is at risk, at only five hospitals because of the lack of agreeing medical staff.
What’s happening in Italy reflects realities in the United States, too. In 2019, nine states passed bills that severely restricted access to abortion services, setting up potential Supreme Court battles challenging Roe v. Wade, which dictates that abortion is legal until the fetus reaches viability, usually at 24 to 28 weeks.
Despite subsequent rulings, which stipulate that women must be able to access abortion without “undue burden,” in many states, women have to drive for hours just to reach an abortion facility. Six states have only one clinic providing such services. Many people in rural America live in “abortion deserts,” which means they have to travel more than 100 miles to find a clinic providing safe abortion services.
Now, with the confirmation of Barrett to the Supreme Court, abortion rights activists are sounding the alarm. Even if a solidly conservative Supreme Court doesn’t strike down Roe, it would probably allow states to tighten restrictions, effectively making abortion illegal in some places.
Silvia Agatone, a gynecologist and president of LAIGA, a nonprofit organization working to advance abortion access for women in Italy, explains that her organization has found links between the United States and Italy in terms of the abortion debate.
Agatone says that in 2018, she began seeing posters and fliers promoted by far-right, antiabortion groups like CitizenGo and Movimento per la Vita (Movement for Life) outside abortion facilities. “These groups promote deceptive and manipulative information to induce a sense of guilt among women and dissuade them from aborting, a practice common in the U.S. as much as in Italy these days,” she says.
LAIGA has for years investigated the ways antiabortion groups partner with organizations in other countries to lobby for their goals. Since then, they’ve highlighted partnerships like the one between the Italian Movimento per la Vita and the U.S. Christian group Heartbeat International, which dates back to 2013. Heartbeat International is also known for supporting the World Congress of Families, an annual gathering of social conservatives, which was last year held in Verona, Italy.
Agatone adds that in 2005, the number of medical objectors was about 58 percent in Italy; it jumped to 69 percent in 2018, which her organization believes to be a result of such cross-border lobbying.
Differenza Donna, which filed its complaint on Oct. 1, will have to wait up to a month for the investigation results. If no responsible entity is found by then, Ercoli says, they’ll appeal to a higher court for further investigations.
In the meantime, Capriccioli’s draft bill is expected to be discussed in the coming weeks. He says his proposal met no major hostilities and is likely to be approved. If passed, however, it would extend only to the Lazio region. His ultimate goal is to inspire similar law changes across the country.
“The discovery of this practice, albeit in such a traumatic way, should become an opportunity to revise this law on a national level,” Capriccioli says. “We hope other regions will follow suit and will address a legal revision to impede nonconsensual burials.”
Francesca says that seeing the grave was a dramatic apex in an already harrowing experience. She says she was five months pregnant when a doctor found a malformation of her embryo, and she decided she wanted an abortion. According to Francesca, it took her 10 days to find a hospital that would agree to proceed with the practice.
“I wonder what happens to more fragile women who can’t get through this sense of guilt they try to build around you to discourage you, and eventually give up on aborting,” she says.