Tragic loss of life as woman dies in Italy over alleged conscience clause

Italy conscientious objection abortion

IPPF EN is horrified that a young woman in Italy has died from septicaemia after her family say she was refused a termination. Valentina Milluzzo was 19 weeks pregnant with twins at the time, having undergone IVF treatment.

IPPF EN is even more outraged over allegations that life-saving action was not taken due to the doctor invoking the conscience clause. We deeply sympathise with Valentina’s family and friends at the tragic loss of life.

On September 29, Valentina was hospitalised in Catania, Sicily, after she experienced an early cervical dilation. She remained stable until it was revealed that one of the foetuses had serious difficulties in breathing. According to her family, the doctor said: “while the foetus is still alive, I am not intervening.”

Given the gravity of Valentina’s situation, the medical staff should have intervened immediately, yet the doctor waited until he could no longer hear a heartbeat, not once but twice, the legal file states. Valentina’s condition deteriorated rapidly overnight and she contracted an infection. She died two days later of septicaemia on October 16 at Cannizzaro Hospital. She was just 32-years-old.

Valentina’s family has since appointed a lawyer who has denounced both the doctor and the hospital. According to reports, all the doctors who were on duty from the first day of her hospitalisation until her death are under investigation, and the Ministry of Health has sent inspectors to the hospital.

This case has eery echoes of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar’s death in Ireland. Savita was admitted to Galway University clinic with severe abdominal pain and a high fever, and later died of septicaemia after being denied an abortion. The doctors on duty told her “[it's] a Catholic country and the law states that they can't abort when the foetus is live.” The crucial difference in these cases, as activist Nadia Somma aptly points out, is that Italy is not Ireland, and abortion has been legal in Italy for 40 years. The Italian law does not allow objecting doctors to deny care when the life of a pregnant woman is in danger, under any circumstances. According to governmental figures, seven out of ten doctors in Italy are conscientious objectors. This is even higher in Sicily at 87.6%.  

The tragic death of Valentina highlights the brutality of a system that permits objecting health care providers to disrespect the law. Far too many doctors and medical staff put their personal conscience before a woman’s conscience, life and dignity. We hope that this tragedy will push the Italian government to finally acknowledge the price of inaction is women’s mistreatment and death.