ITALY – ‘How Did You Get in There and Make the Law Work?’ Feminist Activism, Doctors and Abortion Law: The Occupation of a Hospital

by Elena Caruso

Social & Legal Studies, 21 May 2024  (Full text, open access, photo from Elena Caruso)


In this article, I examine the aftermath of Italy’s 1978 abortion law (Law 194/1978) and the following feminist occupation of a Rome hospital, revealing a little-known chapter in feminist history. The legislation marked a pivotal moment by partly legalising abortion access, overturning draconian laws from the Fascist era. The focus on the 3-month occupation illuminates how social movements actively shaped, and were shaped by, the implementation of the law. Drawing on overlooked archival materials and original interviews with feminist abortion campaigners, I uncover unique dynamics between feminist activists, medical professionals, and abortion law. I contend that this historical event not only diversifies our understanding of social movements’ roles in legal changes but also highlights the exceptional case of a public hospital serving as a platform for transmitting feminist practices and knowledge to medical professionals. Ultimately, I argue for the crucial role of feminist history in advancing socio–legal scholarship.

From the Introduction

In the night between 21 and 22 June 1978, we [the occupiers] went into the Obstetric Clinic, with five women who needed to be admitted to have abortions. We went to the second floor, where there was a closed ward, with 15 beds, as well as an operating room. All perfect, ready to be used. We entered there with these women to implement a law that was now an Italian statute that was not being applied anywhere in Italy.

The night we went there, we [the occupiers] came in and they allowed us to sit down. Once we were in there, we started cleaning everything, organising the beds and they helped us. Those who helped us in this thing were those [members] of a far-left group [the Policlinico collective]. […] They all helped us a little bit. We had to go through the glazed door of the entrance, they had to let us pass through it […] and then it went like this….

In this article, I examine the feminist occupation of the so-called ‘Repartino’, a small and little used ward on the second floor of the Obstetrics Clinic at the Umberto I hospital in Rome, for 3 months in 1978. While other brief occupations took place in Italian hospitals throughout the 1970s, the initiative of the Repartino was unprecedented for its significant duration of over 3 months − from 21 June 1978, when feminists entered the hospital, until a second and final eviction by the police on 25 September. The action started only a few weeks after the enactment of new abortion legislation in Italy, Law 194/1978, which partly liberalised abortion access in the country under certain circumstances.

This legal change happened following years of struggles, in which political groups affiliated with the liberal political party Radical Party (Partito Radicale,PR) and the feminist movement had campaigned for the repeal of abortion crimes and advocated for ‘free and safe abortion on demand’. Yet, the limited circumstances under which Law 194/1978 permits legal access represented a disappointing result for many feminist abortion campaigners.

Law 194 repealed previous draconian anti-abortion laws that dated back to 1930 and had survived the fall of Fascism. Nevertheless, Law 194/1978 also introduced a series of barriers to abortion access such as waiting times, strict gestational age limits, parental consent for under 18-years-old girls, and the right to conscientious objection for the medical personnel. These eloquent words of academic and former feminist campaigner reflect the mixed feelings and ambivalent attitude of part of the feminist movement towards the approval of Law 194/1978:

When the legal text [of Law 194/1978] came out, on the one hand, I said: “Thank goodness it’s done” but, on the other hand, I thought: “This text sucks. It doesn’t suck, but…” At some point, the dynamic was not feminist but it was in the hands of the political parties, the women of the PSI and PCI became protagonists [of abortion law reform].

From the entry into force of Law 194/1978, it became immediately clear that numerous barriers obstructed its application in most parts of the country, in particular because of a lack of available abortion providers (especially due to an immediate widespread use of conscientious objection), lack of appropriate training and shortage of basic equipment to provide abortion services. However, as I will show, with the occupation of the Repartino, feminists sought not only to implement the new abortion law, but also to embed into the formal health system an alternative and feminist model of healthcare, with which they had experimented and practiced in illegal self-managed abortion groups….[continues]