Abortion rights activists heckle Italy's family minister at conference

FILE PHOTO: Brothers of Italy party event in Rome

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) -Protesters on Thursday heckled Italy's family minister over her critical position on abortion rights, forcing her to abandon a speech at a conference on reversing the country's declining birth rate.

When Eugenia Roccella -- a member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party -- took the floor, activists booed and raised letters forming the sentence "I decide over my body."

Roccella initially tried to confront the protesters, but then decided to give up her planned speech.

In a post on social media X, Meloni offered "full and unconditional solidarity" to Roccella and called the protest "disgraceful," as a group of people had prevented a minister from speaking because they opposed her ideas.

"It is time to say enough is enough," Meloni said.

Gigi De Palo, among the organisers of the conference, said in a statement that Roccella had been shaken by the protest and had decided to leave.

President of Italy Sergio Mattarella also expressed his solidarity with Roccella, saying silencing those who think differently was against the principles embedded in the Italian constitution.

The conference, which is taking place in Rome, features speakers from across the political spectrum and on Friday Pope Francis is also scheduled to participate.

Last month, Italy's ruling coalition sparked outrage for passing legislation to allow groups who "support motherhood" into family clinics, where women are offered sexual health, pregnancy and maternity support and services, and referrals for abortion.

Rights groups and the opposition saw the move as an attempt to curb abortion which has been legal in Italy since 1978. The government denied this, saying the aim was only to give more options to women considering terminating their pregnancy.

It was not the first time an event with Roccella has seen protests over her conservative positions. Last year she was jeered at a book festival in the northern city of Turin.

The declining birth rate is seen as a national emergency in Italy. In March, national statistics institute ISTAT said births in the country had dropped to a record low in 2023, the 15th consecutive annual decline.

The fertility rate fell to 1.20 children per woman from 1.24 in 2022 -- far below the rate of 2.1 needed for a steady population.

(Reporting by Angelo AmanteEditing by Alexandra Hudson)