An investigation into the death of a pregnant woman at a hospital where all 12 doctors working in the obstetrics and gynecology department object to abortions sparked a new debate into whether abortion rights are fully guaranteed in Italy.

The 32-year-old woman was five-month pregnant with twins and was taken to the hospital on 29 September due to early dilation of the cervix. Two weeks later, her condition suddenly worsened and she died on 16 October after giving birth to stillborn babies the previous day.

According to the lawyer representing the woman's family against the hospital, in the Sicilian city of Catania, her doctor allegedly refused to remove the two foetuses, who were suffering respiratory complications, until their hearts ceased to beat.

Italy legalised abortion within the first 90 days since conception in 1974, but doctors have the right to refuse to perform abortions on religious grounds, calling themselves conscientious objectors – the only exception of this kind allowed to the medical profession in Italy.

Both the hospital's chief physician professor Paolo Scollo and the Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin, whose awareness-raising campaign Fertility Day made international headlines, denied that the case has anything to do with conscientious objection. According to Scollo, the first stillborn was a spontaneous abortion, whereas the second was induced with oxytocin. "He has done what had to be done according to internationally-recognised, official medical procedure" he said in a press conference held on October 20.

Lorenzin stated: "Conscientious objection has to do with the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, not with cases in which a woman's life needs to be saved. These are two questions that pertain to different spheres."

Whether the woman died due to failed procedures or as a consequence of the doctor's choice, the fact that all doctors in the gynecology department in the hospital object to abortion raised questions over the accessibility of the service across Italy. Data from the Health Ministry published in November 2015 show that over 70% of gynecologists in Italy refuse to perform abortions.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis called on priests to pardon women who have abortions, and the doctors who perform them Getty Images

The data is divided by region and the figure is most likely a conservative one, as it is based on stated objections, without including data from Catholic hospitals where abortion is not available and doctors do not need to declare their objection. Specific data per each city or hospital is harder to come by, but a documentary investigating the issue in 2015 showed that in the city of Rome alone, 9 out of 10 gynecologists identify themselves as conscientious objectors.

Minister Lorenzin has organised for a task force to investigate whether all procedures were followed correctly, and also announced new checks in all structures. The prosecutor's office has placed the 12 doctors under investigation for possible manslaughter.