ROME – After appearing to largely avoid a burgeoning Italian debate over abortion policy, the Vatican has belatedly entered the fray in a way perceived as at least indirectly supportive of a proposal from the country’s center-right government.

Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978, and ever since the basic permissibility of the procedure has been a matter of broad social consensus. The political fault lines tend to break down not over legality, but, in part, over how aggressive the state ought to be in promoting alternatives to abortion.

Recently, the conservative coalition under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni proposed allowing pro-life groups to be included among the consulters to publicly funded family planning clinics, where women seeking an abortion are required to obtain a certificate attesting to the state of their pregnancy.

That idea has triggered fierce blowback from progressives and women’s rights advocates in Italy.

“The intent is clear: To make abortion even more painful, because it’s all about forcing a woman who enters a clinic to have an abortion to face these so-called ‘associations’ who try to dissuade her,” said Beatrice Lorenzin, a leading figure in the center-left Democratic Party.

Maurizio Landini, leader of Italy’s largest trade union, has said the measure “seeks to impede women from making decisions about their own bodies.”

“We’re looking at a very dangerous regression,” Landini said. “There’s a logic of command and control.”

Landini has announced that Italy’s unions plan to stage a protest outside the headquarters of the Italian Senate Tuesday afternoon to object to the proposed measure. Having already passed Italy’s lower house, the bill is now before the Senate where it’s expected to be approved.

Spokespersons for the government and conservative politicians have attempted to play down the dispute, insisting that the proposal to include pro-life groups among the resources available to clinics does no more than apply a provision of the original 1978 which says one aim of the state should be “helping to overcome the factors which might lead the woman to have her pregnancy terminated.”

As this debate has gathered force, the Italian bishops and the Vatican have remained largely silent. Some observers have attributed to reticence to perceived tensions between the bishops and the country’s major pro-life groups, whom some critics see as overly aggressive and excessively influenced by their American counterparts.

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On Saturday, however, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, broke that silence in comments to reporters on the sidelines of a conference at Rome’s Pontifical Urban University on the administration of ecclesiastical goods.

Asked for a comment on the government’s proposal, Parolin said he didn’t want to enter into the “technical details” of the proposal. Nevertheless, he did comment on its substance.

“We’re in favor of life, and also of all those instruments which can help to affirm the right to life, above all for women who find themselves in difficulty,” Parolin said.

For most Italian observers, the comment was taken as a show of support for the government proposal: “The Vatican blesses the anti-abortion measure,” was how the newspaper Il Giornale headlined its coverage.

Not only does the Italian debate come shortly after the Vatican issued the document Dignitas Infinita, which termed abortion a “grave and deplorable” practice, but it’s also unfolding at the same time that the European parliament recently voted to include access to abortion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.

While the vote was fairly overwhelming, with 336 parliamentarians in favor and 163 opposed, it likely will not have any immediate affect since all 27 member states of the EU would have to approve an amendment to the charter, and both Poland and Malta have already signaled they won’t do so in this case.