It didn’t take long for the debate in San Marino to turn toxic. Soon after campaigning in the lead-up to a referendum on legalising abortion officially got under way, the walls of the tiny country, landlocked within central Italy, were slapped with posters from anti-abortion activists featuring a child with Down’s syndrome. The caption read: “I’m an anomaly, does that mean I have fewer rights than you?”
Other posters featured the image of foetus alongside the message: “I’m a child even at 12 weeks, save me!”
There was widespread indignation across the population of 33,000 in response to the billboards, including from those who are against lifting the ban on abortion. But whether it’s enough to turn the tide in the extremely conservative San Marino, where abortion was criminalised by a law that hasn’t changed since 1865, will only be known after the plebiscite on 26 September.
“The atmosphere is very ugly, people are avoiding eye contact on the street,” said Karen Pruccoli, the president of the Sammarinese Women’s Union (UDS), the association promoting the referendum. “Instead of there being a climate of dialogue about a complex and sensitive issue, it is extremely ferocious.”
The population of San Marino, one of the last places in Europe which has a total ban on abortion, will vote on whether to allow abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Beyond the twelfth week, the procedure would only be permitted if the mother’s life is in danger or if there are foetal abnormalities.
Having an abortion in San Marino is punishable by between three and six years in prison, forcing women to terminate pregnancies in Italy, where abortion was legalised after a referendum in 1978.
“They have to pay a lot for it, between €1,500 and €2,000,” said Pruccoli. “Then they return home knowing they’re considered a criminal. It’s a mental torture.”
The women rarely speak about their experiences due to the risks involved and stigma surrounding abortion, although some have shared written testimonies anonymously with UDS. One woman, already a mother of two children, said she terminated her third pregnancy after discovering abnormalities with the foetus. Another mother of one said she ended her second pregnancy due to fears that the foetus might have been harmed by the medication she had been taking for postnatal depression. “There are countless reasons that can lead a woman to have an abortion, and nobody should judge,” she said. A woman of 25 said she was raped at 17. She didn’t become pregnant but had she done so, she said she would have chosen to abort.
It is unknown whether a woman was ever jailed in San Marino for having an abortion, although pro-choice activists found archives of abortion trials in the 1960s and 70s during which the women were described as “crazy” or “of no good”. “They were depicted using the worst of terms or as being mentally unbalanced,” said Pruccoli.
San Marino has long lagged behind on women’s rights. A referendum in 1982 – the first one ever held in the state – to scrap a law that took away citizenship from women who married a foreigner was defeated. The referendum campaign was as potent as the current one, with fathers voting against daughters and brothers against sisters. The law was eventually revoked by parliament, but not until 2000.
Women were only given the right to vote in 1964, while divorce was introduced in 1986.
The first two women were elected to government in 1974. Four years later, the third – Maria Lea Pedini-Angelini – was elected. In 1981, Pedini-Angelini became the first woman in San Marino to be elected captain regent, or head of state.
“We were a rarity,” said Pedini-Angelini. “But it was at that point that we started talking about all that was lacking in our country in terms of rights and social benefits – everything was missing.”
There have been attempts over the past two decades to legalise abortion, but all were rejected by a succession of mostly conservative governments. The state is ruled by the Christian Democratic Party, a political force with close ties to the Catholic church. The party has appealed to people to vote against legalising abortion.
“There has been a total failure by the political class to tackle this issue over the last 40 years,” said Francesca Nicolini, a doctor. “They ignore it as they’re scared of losing votes.”
If the referendum is successful, then the challenge will be ensuring the outcome is turned into legislation which also limits the number of moral objectors hired into the health system. Despite abortion being legal in Italy, women still struggle to access the procedure due to the high number of gynaecologists who refuse to terminate pregnancies for moral reasons.
Over 3,000 signatures were collected in support of the referendum, more than double the legal requirement.
“There was lots of enthusiasm for it, especially among young people, men and women [alike],” said Vanessa Muratori, a former MP who in 2003 was the first politician to submit a bill to legalise abortion.
Pro-choice campaigners feel hopeful that the high level of support will translate into victory on 26 September. They also take comfort in the examples of largely Catholic Ireland lifting its abortion ban via a referendum in 2018, and Mexico, where it was decriminalised by the supreme court last week.
But with campaigners against abortion upping the ante in recent days, the race is tight.
“San Marino has no obligation to adopt the laws of its border nations and it doesn’t need to depend on the bad example of Italy,” said Adolfo Morganti, who belongs to Comitato Uno di Noi, the group campaigning against abortion.
He argued that the discussion should instead be focused on adopting programmes that support women to carry through their pregnancies.
But if his opponents win, he said the outcome would be accepted.
“Catholics have rarely started revolutions – we will try to heal our wounds,” he added.