Verona (Italy) (AFP) - Thousands of protesters marched in the northern Italian city of Verona on Saturday, after the local council passed a motion to fund Catholic anti-abortion groups.
The motion, proposed by a member of the far-right League party, declared the city "pro-life". Under the scheme, pregnant women will be encouraged to give up unplanned babies for adoption.
Women wearing white cone hats reminiscent of those worn in Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale", a reference to women's rights, led the march through the city famed for Shakespeare's ode to love, Romeo and Juliet.
"We are furious, so are many women who fought in the 1970s to legalise safe, free abortions," Sara De Falco, a member of one of the organisations behind the protest, told AFPTV.
"We're angry because this motion is the symbol of the link today -- in Verona but also in Italy as a whole -- between the far right and Catholicism," she said.
The vote on the motion came just days before Pope Francis compared having an abortion to hiring a contract killer.
Right-wing mayor Federico Sboarina dismissed the row, saying the motion is "not anti-anything, but pro- : pro-life and the freedom of women".
The measures would help women to "overcome the reasons, which can also be economic, which might lead them to terminate a pregnancy," he said.
Italy's Family Minister Lorenzo Fontana, a League member himself, also backed the new measure. It does nothing more than apply the existing law, "helping a woman choose, so she can carry her baby to term", he argued.
- 'Turning back the clock' -
"The city risks being drawn into a chain of events on a national level and be labelled as an intolerant city," said Tommaso Ferrari, an opposition politician at the march and one of the few to have voted against the League's motion.
"We risk turning back the clock... it's not just dangerous for Italian policies but European ones too".
Under the 1978 law, women can have abortions until the 90th day of their pregnancy, or within the 5th month for "therapeutic abortions", induced if deemed medically necessary.
But forty years on, the law remains highly controversial, largely due to the sway of the powerful Roman Catholic church, both in terms of its care structures and the training of doctors.
"We have an increasing number of hospitals that open their doors thanks to the financial support of the Vatican, while public hospitals have ever fewer resources," gynaecologist and pro-abortion activist Elisabetta Canitano told AFP.
Private hospitals, especially ones funded by the church, can refuse to perform abortions.
- 'Hidden abortions' -
She points to the Mater Olbia Hospital, a brand new facility located in Sardinia and owned by Qatar, and Rome's Gemelli Hospital, which is run by the Vatican. The Gemelli University Hospital Centre is also home to one of the most renowned medical schools in Italy.
Foreign women in particular -- including refugees and prostitutes, often of African origin -- are being forced into back-room abortions, she said.
"The situation is also serious for therapeutic abortions. We are bringing children into the world who we know will die, because 'it is God who gave it to you and God who takes it away'," Canitano said.
Italy has a very high number of conscientious objectors -- practitioners who for moral, religious or personal reasons refuse to perform abortions.
Nationwide, 70 percent of practitioners took this position in 2016 -- but the figure was as high as 90 percent in some southern regions, according to health ministry figures.
Some 84,926 abortions were performed in 2016 throughout Italy, a figure steadily on the decline and nearly three times lower than the 1982 record.
But the AMCI says those headline figures do not tell the whole story: it estimates the number of drug-induced abortions performed in 2016 to be around 405,000, dubbing them "hidden abortions".
It includes in these figures both the morning after pill, sold over the counter in Italy, and hospital-administered abortion pills.