ROME—Hundreds of white and metal crosses bearing the names of women who terminated their pregnancies in Roman hospitals are lined up in rows in a grassy section of the capital city’s Flaminio Cemetery. The area, dubbed “garden of angels” has existed since the 1990s when the ultra-conservative Catholic group Difendere la Vita con Maria or Defend Life with Mary, somehow gained access to medical refuse from which they fish out fetuses to bury.
Some graves have faded teddy bears and pinwheels attached to the crosses. Others have notes and photos of the Virgin Mary. None of them are tended by the actual women whose fetuses are buried there, and now the burial practice is the target of a class action lawsuit by nearly 100 women who say they never gave permission for their fetuses to be buried.
The moribund story came to light last week when a woman known as F.T. gave a shocking interview to La Repubblica newspaper. In it, she explained that she terminated her pregnancy due to grave health concerns for both her and her unborn baby‘s survival, and she says she was in a state of shock. At the hospital in Rome, she said she signed numerous papers under circumstances she calls “a blur” from the trauma of her health scare —including one in which she apparently gave Rome’s waste management company AMA and the conservative Catholic group permission to bury her fetus with her name on a cross.
“It was as if they had buried me,” she said. “They decided that I am already dead.”
The discovery of the cemetery in Rome has prompted investigations across the country, where at least a dozen communities have the same sections for “babies never born” in public cemeteries. A similar graveyard was discovered in Turin in 2013 after cemetery managers there contacted a woman whose aborted fetus had been buried without her permission to inform her that the grave would be exhumed if she did not pay the annual dues. The graves in that plot have since been removed.
The women's rights group Differenza Donna is now planning to meet with the Italian Health Minister after putting out a call for women who had likely signed similar papers in hospitals to join a class action lawsuit against the hospitals, the Rome waste management company, and the Catholic group. Women do voluntarily ask to have their fetuses buried, but the women who have signed the lawsuit did not and instead assumed the medical refuse would be processed under medically acceptable practices.
“Next week, we will all get together,” Differenza Donna president Elisa Ercoli said in a statement Friday. “We have asked the judicial authority to identify which are the crimes that correspond to the serious violations against human rights and women’s freedom,” she wrote. “A national intervention is needed to stop these serious violations that have occurred for years but only discovered in these days.”
She has condemned the mayor of Rome, the city waste management company, and health ministry for turning a blind eye to the practice. Lorenza Fruci, the delegate for Gender Policy in the Rome city government, said Saturday that the graves must be removed. “It was unacceptable what happened with the names on the graves,” she said. “A humiliating and intolerable practice that violates the right of these women to privacy.”
What is yet unclear is just how the group that buries these fetuses gained access to what under any other circumstance should have been private information. F.T., who visited the cemetery after being told her name was on a grave, told La Repubblica that the termination of her pregnancy was traumatic enough. “It was a terrible experience, even for how I was treated during the hospitalization,” she says. “Now I discover that my name is on a cross and that underneath is my daughter.”