Free Expression or Free Choice? Pro-Life Billboard Removed

Freedom of expression versus freedom to choose: the case of the Italian pro-life billboard removed in Rome.

On April 4, a huge anti-abortion poster appeared on the wall of a building in Rome, showing a fetus and the following text: ‘Your heart was beating from the third week after your conception. You were already sucking your thumb.’ This was one of the biggest billboards ever realized by the ‘ProVita’ (Pro-Life movement) and, as such, it raised strong critiques from feminist groups and pro-choice organizations.

Italian law on abortion

In Italy, abortion is legal since May 22, 1978, when the then Italian government approved the as famous as debated law 194. With the entry into force of this reform, abortion is allowed in the first ninety days of gestation (the first three months). The abortion law was the result of twenty years of protests and demonstrations all across Italy, and represented a great achievement for the youth and Radical movements. Emma Bonino, who took part to the last Italian legislative elections with the +Europa (More Europe) Party, was one of the main proposers and supporters of this law.

However, religious groups and right-wing parties still struggle to accept abortion as something respectful of human life and, in particular, in accordance with religious principles. What the Pro-Choice movement understandably claims is the fact that, since religion is a personal and private conviction, even the decision of carrying the pregnancy should be equally personal and free. Freedom lies in the possibility of choosing.

Reactions to the removal of the billboard

The local government removed the poster two days after its appearance and, on Wednesday 11, the Pro-Life movement started to hand out pamphlets on the health risks that abortion provokes to women in the Senate, with the support of Matteo Salvini’s party, the Northern League, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. In addition, they defined the measure taken by the institutions as an attack to the freedom of expression. Indeed, they claim to have the right to inform those women who decide to undertake this procedure about the long-term physical and psychological risks that an abortion can entail. However, forcing someone to maintain an unwanted pregnancy can have equally serious risks and this cannot be ignored.

Freedom of expression and scientific truths

In some parts of Italy, abortion is still a taboo and some women can be socially excluded when they decide to terminate the pregnancy. In this kind of situations, women should be supported and helped to pick the least painful choice, because pain is an unavoidable condition in both cases. At the same time, freedom of expression has to be defended in all circumstances and pro-life movements have the right to express their opposition to abortion. However, they should do that by respecting and taking into account scientific truths. Indeed, the heart of a fetus starts to beat only at week four, and the brain begins to develop from week eight. Therefore, it is much less likely that a fetus can suck its thumb at week three, since it usually does it starting from week twenty-one.