Residents in San Marino have voted overwhelmingly to legalise abortion.
Over 40% of the population of about 33,000 in the tiny state, which is landlocked within central Italy, participated in the referendum, with 77.3% voting in support of allowing abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, according to results published by San Marino TV.
Beyond the 12th week, the procedure would only be permitted if the mother’s life is in danger or if there are foetal abnormalities.
San Marino, where abortion has been illegal since 1865, was one of the last places in Europe that maintained a total ban on abortion and the practice was punishable by between three and six years’ imprisonment.
Women seeking to terminate a pregnancy were forced to go to Italy, where abortion was legalised following a referendum in 1978, with costs ranging from €1,500 (£1,290) to €2,000.
Victory for the yes camp followed a tense referendum campaign in the extremely conservative state.
“I am very happy and satisfied that the citizens of San Marino have finally expressed the fact that women must enjoy equal dignity,” said Francesca Nicolini, a doctor and member of Sammarinese Women’s Union (UDS), the association that promoted the referendum.
“Our citizens have taken a step forward and finally brought us into the third millennium and our politicians will have to keep in mind that they need to do more, and better, in terms of the rights of all people.”
San Marino is ruled by the Christian Democratic party, a political force with close ties to the Catholic church. It had appealed to people to vote against legalising abortion. Pope Francis recently reiterated that abortion was “murder”.
Church bells rang out on Sunday morning as a signal to the faithful to vote against lifting the ban. Opponents of abortion also held vigils in recent days, praying that the referendum was defeated.
There was widespread condemnation, including from those against lifting the ban, at the beginning of the campaign when anti-abortion activists plastered the walls of San Marino with posters 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 a foetus alongside the message: “I’m a child even at 12 weeks. Save me!”
San Marino has long lagged behind other European countries on women’s rights. A referendum in 1982 – the first held in the state – to scrap a law that took away citizenship from women who married a foreigner was defeated. The law was eventually revoked by parliament, but not until 2000. Women were only given the right to vote in 1964, while divorce was made legal in 1986.
The referendum was held after several attempts over the past two decades to legalise abortion were sabotaged by a succession of mostly conservative governments. Over 3,000 signatures were collected in support of the plebiscite, more than double the legal requirement.