ROME – Four police officers and one young woman were injured Friday during a protest march attempting to reach an event dedicated to raising Italy’s historically low birth rate where Pope Francis was speaking, though the pontiff was not the target of the protests.

The event was titled “General States of the Birth Rate,” an annual gathering sponsored by an Italian pro-family association with close ties to the Catholic Church. It took place this year against the backdrop of a new report from Italy’s national statistics institute indicating that the country reached an all-time low with just 390,000 live births in 2023.

The event is funded both by the city of Rome and the surrounding region of Lazio, and comes with the strong backing of the conservative government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has made efforts to raise Italy’s birth rate a cornerstone of her domestic agenda.

Pope Francis travelled down the Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue that flows into St. Peter’s Square, in order to address the conference Friday afternoon, endorsing its pro-family agenda.

“Today, the investments that generate the most income are the manufacture of weapons and of contraceptives,” Francis said, citing an unnamed demographer. “What future can we expect? It’s ugly.”

In broad strokes, the pope encouraged measures to promote having children.

“There’s need of a greater commitment on the part of all governments, so that young generations are placed in conditions in which they can realize their dreams,” the pope said.

“It’s a matter of enacting a series of effective choices in favor of the family,” he said. “For example, putting a mother in a situation in which she doesn’t have to choose between work and taking care of her children, or freeing many young couples from the weight of occupational precariousness and the impossibility of buying a house.”

The remarks brought applause from the crowd gathered in the Auditorium della Conciliazione, located at the end of the avenue that leads away from the Vatican.

Nearby, however, the atmosphere was less congenial, as dozens of young protestors, many of them college students from Rome’s Sapienza University, attempted to march toward the pro-fertility event to object to the presence of Eugenia Maria Roccella, the Minister for the Family, Birth Rate and Equal Opportunity in the Meloni government.

Among other things, the protestors identify Roccella with a controversial recent measure pushed through by Meloni’s coalition permitting pro-life groups to be among the consultors at publicly funded family planning clinics, where Italian women wishing an abortion are required to obtain a certificate documenting the state of their pregnancy.

A group of protestors inside the audience hall shouted down Roccella when she attempted to speak, chanting “I’ll decide about my body!”, and eventually she decided to abandon the effort. Roccella was part of a panel that also included Jessica Barcella, a woman currently in her eighth month of pregnancy and a contract worker with no employment protections, who had been invited to speak about how her economic situation may influence her ability to raise her child.

Meanwhile, police officers wearing blue helmets and wielding batons intercepted the larger group of protestors on a street on the other side of the Vatican, well away from the hall where the pope spoke. Media reports indicated that four police officers were treated for minor contusions as a result of the scuffles, while at least one young female protestor was treated for a blow to the head at the nearby Santo Spirito Hospital and then released.

One other government official, Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, announced that he was pulling out of the event on Saturday, while another, Education Minister Giuseppe Valditara, asked that a video message he recorded not be shown, both gestures announced in support of Roccella.

Both Meloni and Italian President Sergio Mattarella also expressed support for Roccella’s right to speak. Organizers of the protests, meanwhile, announced plans for a June 1 demonstration against the Meloni government, ahead of elections for the European Parliament set for June 6-9.