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How Italy’s New Draconian Bill On Surrogacy Twists The Meaning Of "Women's Dignity"

Italy’s right-wing politicians are trying to ban surrogacy, as the pope pushes parents to have children and feminists are divided on the issue. On such a complicated issue, hard thinking and nuance have been in short supply.

photo of a pregnant woman

Women with child

Irene Caselli


After almost two decades away from Italy, I ended up moving back just after I found out I was pregnant in 2018.

We lived in a stone house among olive trees in the Umbrian countryside, just off a beautiful medieval borgo called Montecastello di Vibio.

Even if I had tried, I could not have picked a better place for my pregnancy to be celebrated — and monitored publicly. With its aging dwellers slowly fading and younger families moving to the big cities, Montecastello was a perfect illustration of Italy’s falling fertility rates.

That a pregnancy was taking place in the town of 1,000 inhabitants was seen as a sort of miracle to be rejoiced at — one that got the otherwise taciturn Umbrians to open up and show their kindness. The baker would hand me free squares of focaccia, while the butcher asked about my upcoming scans. Others worried if they saw me walking around town when it was too windy, and all came to congratulate me when Lorenzo was born.

Fertility crisis

For years, Italy’s falling fertility rates have been making the news. Conservative politicians tried to promote a ”Fertility Day” in 2016, with cringe-worthy, sexist promotional images that showed a woman stress-smiling because her clock was ticking. “Beauty has no age. But fertility does,” read one.

Pope Francis also made headlines more recently when he criticized couples who decide to have pets over children. “This denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity,” he said.

In this context of demographic challenges and the historical weight of the Catholic Church, the debate over surrogacy in Italy was bound to be complicated. Now, Italy’s conservative political parties are trying to pass legislation that would completely ban surrogacy, even if practiced abroad.

Currently, surrogacy is illegal in Italy: Anyone who creates, organizes or advertises surrogacy commits an offense of criminal relevance that can be punished with up to two years in jail and fines of up to one million euros. But since surrogacy is allowed in other countries, it has been up to Italian courts to rule on the recognition of foreign birth certificates for children born abroad via a surrogate — and so far it has not been considered a crime.

Photo of Pope Francis holding a child

Pope Francis and child

Stefano Costantino/SOPA Images via ZUMA

Abortion contradiction

With the current proposed legislation, things would change. The argument being used is that surrogacy has become a business that endangers women’s lives.

“It is a practice that turns life into a commodity and demeans the dignity of women,” said far-right leader Giorgia Meloni.

Well, for starters, this is Meloni's idea of women’s dignity: On March 8, she complained that the Minister for Equal Opportunities asked for the removal of a campaign against abortion that showed a fetus and said: “Power to women? Let’s give birth to them!”

Meloni asked: “What is there to censor in this message in favor of life, natality, children and in favor of supporting their mothers?”

I have a question for her: Who can you reconcile a ban on abortion with a ban on surrogacy?

There are feminists who defend the universal ban.

LGBTQ+ rights groups consider the proposed Italian legislation as an attack against them. Veiled behind a discourse that talks about the rights of women, right-wing politicians are trying to make it impossible for them to have a family.

Feminists divided

This is of course not surprising, considering that the Vatican has long influenced our internal politics.

Don’t get me wrong: I also worry about the exploitation of surrogacy when it is commercialized and it involves “cheap hubs,” as it was the case of Nepal, Kenya or Ukraine.

But there are a number of feminists who share the absolutist view of Pope Francis and Giorgia Meloni on a universal ban.

Writing in La Stampa, Lucetta Scaraffia argues that the separation experienced by the surrogate mother who carries the child in her womb is "a trauma, always:”

“In the case of children given up for adoption we recognize the trauma that abandonment by their natural mother represented for them, and we recognize that even for the mother forced to abandon him or her this is a very painful choice," Scaraffia argues. "But in the case of the surrogate mother, on the contrary, we do not want to see this, or rather we deny that in this case it is a planned trauma. A trauma produced specifically to make two selfish adults ‘happy’, who, not wanting to adopt an abandoned child, want one that has their genes, that bears their indelible trademark.”

Eugenia Tognotti, professor of medicine and human sciences, puts it in even starker terms: “Surrogacy, even if done for altruistic reasons and not for commercial ones, is nothing more than a form of modern slavery. The woman's body — in conditions of need — is transformed into a commodity, as is the child to be bought and sold, the child of a couple provided with means.”

Legalization with caveats

These are heavy words and hard questions, no doubt.

Still, I believe that the conversation should lead us elsewhere, not in favor of an outright ban.

I wish adoption, as cited by everyone from the pope to Scaraffia as a solution, could be such an easy process that people who can’t have their own children can look after another child. But that is not the case.

Shouldn’t we instead legislate better to make sure that if surrogacy takes place it takes place in a way that is dignified for the woman that carries the pregnancy?

“If I had written the law, instead of talking about gestation for others as a universal crime, I would have proposed to make it legal, but under certain conditions," said author Michela Marzano. "I would have proposed it to be free of charge, as happens when you donate an organ. But I would also have asked for medical and legal support for each woman.”

Marzano concludes: "There are those who donate a kidney or a piece of liver for free, there are those who constantly give time and love, there are those who give even their lives without asking anything in return.”

We need to have an honest conversation.

If we want to move forward, we need to have an honest conversation that involves people’s motives and a proper analysis of capitalism's role. Within that context, we can legislate in a way that makes more sense. After all, in countries like Canada, where compensation for surrogacy is not allowed, there are still women interested in carrying a baby for other couples.

It might not ever be a choice for me, or for Giorgia Meloni, but I see plenty of women's dignity there.

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