Francesca clearly remembers the sleepless nights she spent trying to ignore the fact that a tiny baby was fluttering in her stomach. As she wrestled with the idea of ending her pregnancy, “I would sleep standing to not feel the uneasiness, both physical and psychological,” she says, her eyes filling with tears as she recalls the memory.
At age 35, and at her fifth month of pregnancy, Francesca found out the baby girl she was expecting had a malformed heart, and was unlikely to survive the full term. In September 2019, she made the excruciating decision to have an abortion, struggling for months afterwards as she tried to convince herself that she had made the right choice for her family.
But on an early October morning last year, the dread came flooding back tenfold as she stood, horrified, in front of a grave bearing her own name. The letters, as well as the numbers of a fictional death date, were clearly marked on a white wooden cross that had been erected alongside hundreds of others in area 108 of Rome’s Flaminio cemetery (also known as Prima Porta), the largest in Italy.
The grave Francesca discovered was not her own, but that of the baby girl she had heart-wrenchingly decided to abort.
Letting out a desperate cry, “I doubled over, clutching my stomach as if I had been punched,” Francesca recalls. “I just kept thinking, How could someone do this to me, to any woman? Putting our names on those crosses felt like persecution. It immediately reawakened a dormant trauma.”
The devastating discovery uncovered the shocking truth about Italy’s so-called Fields of Angels, and the widespread practice of burying fetal remains without the mothers’ consent in dedicated areas across the country.
Francesca had been curious to visit the cemetery after reading a Facebook post at the end of September. A fellow Roman woman said she refused to claim her aborted fetal tissue from a hospital in the city. Seven months later, she wrote, she found out the remains had been taken by strangers and buried without her consent.
The post went viral, with more than 10,000 shares; other women said the same thing happened to them. Since then, the backlash has gained momentum, the outrage building quickly to resemble something of the Italian version of the #MeToo movement.
In Italy, the burials aren’t technically unlawful. They are permitted under a 1990 law adapted from one dating back to 1939, which was established under dictator Benito Mussolini. The current law, which applies to miscarriages and abortions, states that if the fetuses are less than 20 weeks old, patients have 24 hours to claim the remains.
However, if no request is submitted, their right to ownership ceases to apply, and local health authorities may take charge of burials. Since the 1990 law passed, it has been common for third parties – generally Catholic and anti-abortion groups – to stipulate agreements with hospitals to handle the disposal of the fetuses.
The woman’s privacy, however, is protected by a 1978 law that made abortion legal. For Francesca, who is being identified here by only her first name because of ongoing litigation related to the unauthorised burial, this wasn’t just a matter of privacy. Seeing her name on that cross felt like a punishment for her act.
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