ROME – While conflict is churning both inside Italy and across Europe over a new plan by the Italian government to include pro-life groups among the consulters to publicly funded family planning clinics which issue certificates women need to have an abortion, the country’s bishops so far largely have sat out the debate.

In part, that may reflect a troubled history among some of the country’s leading pro-life groups and the new leadership of the Italian bishops’ conference under Pope Francis, which takes a dim view of groups that seem to take their cues from aggressive American pro-life organizations.

The row centers on an amendment to a new health care package proposed by the government of conservative Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, which would allow the country’s twenty regions to decide whether to include pro-life groups among the resources available to publicly funded family planning clinics, drawing in part on new funds from the EU’s post-Covid recovery package.

The amendment was passed by Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, on Tuesday, and is expected to be approved by the Senate.

Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978 during the first 90 days of pregnancy for virtually any reason, and afterwards in the case either of threats to the health of the mother or developmental issues with the unborn child.

A woman wishing an abortion must first obtain a certificate attesting to the state of her pregnancy, which can come from her publicly-funded general practitioner, a private physician, or a family planning clinic.

The most visible and influential pro-life organization in Italy is known as Pro Vita e Famiglia, which has called for women seeking an abortion certificate to first be required to see the fetus on a ultrasound and to hear its heartbeat, though the group’s leader, layman Jacopo Coghe, has said it has no intention of entering family planning clinics.

The move by the Meloni government has drawn strong protests from Italy’s left-wing political opposition. One leading lawmaker from the Democratic Party compared allowing pro-life groups into abortion clinics to turning over hospital administration to no-vax forces, while another accused Meloni’s coalition of a “patriarchal and obscurantist vision, seeking every time to erode women’s rights.”

On Wednesday, a member of parliament named Gilda Sportiello, representing the populist liberal Five Stars Movement, took to the floor to reveal that she’d had an abortion 14 years ago, insisting that “no woman who wants to interrupt her pregnancy should feel attacked by the state.”

The proposal has also drawn international criticism, including from Spain’s Minister of Equality, Ana Redondo García, who objected on the social media platform X.

“Allowing organized pressures against women who wish to interrupt a pregnancy means undermining a right recognized by law,” Redondo wrote. Though she did not specify which law she had in mind, last week the European Parliament voted to include access to abortion in its Charter of Fundamental Rights.

“This is a strategy of the far right – threatening to take away rights, in order to put the brakes on equality between women and men,” Redondo wrote.

Speaking to reporters while in Brussels for a meeting of the European Council, Meloni quickly fired back.

“Normally when someone is ignorant on a subject, they should at least have the good manners not to give lessons,” she shot back. Eugenia Roccella, Meloni’s Minister for the Family, insisted that the amendment does no more than apply Italy’s original 1978 abortion law, which lists among the goals of family planning clinics that of “helping to overcome the factors which might lead the woman to have her pregnancy terminated.”

Despite the controversy, so far the Italian bishops’ conference, known by its acronym of CEI, as well as most individual prelates, largely have remained silent, taking no position on the proposed measure.

A piece Thursday in the Italian newspaper Quotidiano Nazionale suggested that the bishops’ reticence may be related to tensions over the past decade between some of the country’s leading pro-life groups and the leadership of CEI named by Pope Francis.

The piece recalled that in 2015, for example, the then-secretary of CEI, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, widely seen as a key Francis ally among the Italian bishops, distanced the church from a “Family Day” rally planned by pro-life groups, in part to protest recognition of civil unions for same-sex couples, a measure which was adopted in 2016.

In interviews at the time, Galantino complained about the “style” of the groups behind the rally, a reference which was understood to include concern that they were overly influenced by the approach of American pro-life organizations.

Those concerns are still current, in part because Pro Vita e Famiglia has acknowledged receiving roughly $100,000 in funding from the American pro-life group Heartbeat International.