Abortion is a terrifying thing

In February of 1975, the same month the Constitutional Court of Italy ruled that Article 546 of the country’s 1930 penal code—the prohibition of abortion—was unconstitutional, celebrated Italian author Italo Calvino was alerted to an anti-abortion essay written by friend, scholar and fellow novelist Claudio Magris. Calvino sent the following letter in response.

Three years later, abortion was legalised in Italy for women in the first 90 days of pregnancy, for any reason, the service provided without charge in certain public hospitals. ‘Law 140’ remains to this day, as does a clause which allows doctors to refuse to perform the procedure if “they have a conscientious objection, declared in advance.”


8 February 1975

Dear Prof. Magris,

I was very disappointed to read your article “Gli sbagliati” [The Deluded]. It pained me a lot not only that you had written it but above all because you think in this way.

Bringing a child into the world makes sense only if this child is wanted consciously and freely by its two parents. If it is not, then it is simply animal and criminal behavior. A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people. If this is not the case, then humanity becomes—as it is already to a large extent—no more than a rabbit-warren. But this is no longer a “free-range” warren but a “battery” one, in the conditions of artificiality in which it lives, with artificial light and chemical feed.

Only those people—a man and a woman—who are a hundred percent convinced that they possess the moral and physical possibility not only of rearing a child but of welcoming it as a welcome and beloved presence, have the right to procreate. If this is not the case, they must first of all do everything not to conceive, and if they do conceive (given that the margin for unpredictability continues to be high) abortion is not only a sad necessity, but a highly moral decision to be taken with full freedom of conscience. I do not understand how you can associate abortion with an idea of hedonism or the good life. Abortion is a terrifying thing.

In abortion the person who is massacred, physically and morally, is the woman. Also for any man with a conscience every abortion is a moral ordeal that leaves a mark, but certainly here the fate of the woman is in such a disproportionate condition of unfairness compared with the man’s, that every male should bite his tongue three times before speaking about such things. Just at the moment when we are trying to make less barbarous a situation which for the woman is truly terrifying, an intellectual uses his authority so that women have to stay in this hell. Let me tell you, you are really irresponsible, to say the least. I would not mock the “hygienic-prophylactic measures” so much; certainly you will never have to undergo a scraping of your womb. But I’d like to see your face if they forced you to have an operation in the filth and without any recourse to hospitals under pain of imprisonment. Your “integrity of life” vitalism is to say the least fatuous. For Pasolini to say these things does not surprise me. But I thought that you knew what it costs and what the responsibilities are if you bring other lives into this world.

I am sorry that such a radical divergence of opinion on these basic ethical questions has interrupted our friendship.


Letter excerpted from the fantastic book, Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, translated by Martin McLaughlin. Princeton University Press, May 2013.