ROME — For most people, family planning is not a governmental matter, but a private affair that encompasses financial, career and personal decisions. So when the Italian Health Ministry launched an in-your-face (or, indeed, in-your-uterus) campaign complete with plans for a national “Fertility Day” to encourage young couples to get to bed and make some babies, it had about the same effect as a cold shower.
The bizarre-for-modern-times initiative, led by health minister Beatrice Lorenzin, who had twins last year at the age of 42, will kick off on Sept. 22, F-Day, so to speak, with events in Rome, Bologna, Catania and Padua.
There will be roundtables, Fertility Villages and, one would assume, a lot of pink and blue balloons. Childcare will be provided and adolescents will get their own dedicated tents where they will learn about sexual health and how to “preserve fertility” by wearing condoms so that when they are ready to reproduce, they will be disease-free. The advice is illustrated with a clothesline with condoms for every day of the week.
The extensive ad campaign also includes a photo of a snarky woman holding an hourglass up to the camera as if shaking a symbolic biological clock at her childless peers, with the words, “Beauty has no age, but fertility does.” There are also ads with storks and dripping water faucets.
Several ads are aimed just at men, including one with a bent cigarette where a penis would be on a fingers-for-legs person urging them not to damage their sperm by smoking. Another shows an empty banana peel while touting the five rules for protecting and maintaining male fertility. There was also, briefly, an online “fertility game” where the players dodged obstacles to fertility like cigarettes and alcohol.
It might seem like an innocent enough idea to jumpstart Italy’s declining birthrate, which is the second lowest in Europe after Malta with just 1.37 children per woman, and has been declining rapidly, falling by 2.9 percent between 2014 and 2015.
But the campaign has offended those of childbearing years because it simplifies what has become a difficult decision for many Italians because of high unemployment (35 percent for under-30s) and a clear lack of well-paid jobs. Roberto Saviano, author and political columnist, called it “an insult to all those who are not able to conceive and those who would like to but don’t have jobs.”
Twitter exploded with a cavalcade of criticism against the measure, with people calling it insulting to encourage families in a struggling economy. One student tweeted a simple question, “Should I really explain why I find the #fertilityday offensive, sexist and violent? Shame on @bealorenzin.”
We asked a group of young women having a coffee near the Trevi Fountain what they thought of the initiative. Sarah, a 26-year-old law student, echoed many social media sentiments about how the initiative undercuts any moves to empower women in a country that has long struggled with equality.
“It is so surprising coming from a female minister, it’s like they want us to go back to the Dark Ages and be barefoot and pregnant,” she said.
Daniele, 27, who has a degree in psychology and is engaged to be married, said there is no place for government in the bedroom. “It is irresponsible for the government to dictate when we should have children without first ensuring we will have jobs to pay for them,” she said. “It’s offensive.”
Lorenzin, who recently doubled the country’s baby bonus for low-income families from €80 to €160, says she is shocked by the backlash. “Fertility is a question of public health,” her spokesman told The Daily Beast. “The idea was to provide a venue for information on family planning and nothing else.”
Many people opposed to the campaign likened it to regulations set forth by Benito Mussolini during the fascist regime of the 1930s, when the government essentially demanded that couples copulate to grow the population.
In a scathing op-ed piece, writer and radio personality Giulia Blasi likened it to Margaret Atwood’s disturbing tale of government-sponsored baby making in The Handmaid’s Tale.
“It’s the stuff of dystopian novels and fascist propaganda,” writes Blasi. “Something Benito Mussolini was quite good at in times when contraception was unavailable and women did not have the right to vote, much less work outside the home.”
Musician Daniel Seven tweeted a succinct question: “Are we living in 2016 or 1939?”