Residents in San Marino are voting over whether or not to lift a ban on abortion following a tense referendum campaign.
The extremely conservative landlocked state within central Italy, which has a population of about 33,000, is one of the last places in Europe that has a total ban on abortion.
People will vote on whether to allow abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Beyond the twelfth week, the procedure would be permitted only if the mother’s life was in danger or if there were foetal abnormalities.
Having an abortion in San Marino is punishable by between three and six years in prison, forcing women to terminate their pregnancies in Italy, where abortion was legalised after a referendum in 1978.
Campaigners have come up against fierce opposition from Catholic and pro-life groups.
A nun casts her ballot in Sunday’s referendum. Church bells rang out on Sunday morning as a signal to the faithful to vote against lifting the ban. Photograph: Antonio Calanni/AP
San Marino is ruled by the Christian Democratic party, a political force with close ties to the Catholic church. The party has appealed to people to vote against legalising abortion. Meanwhile, Pope Francis recently reiterated that abortion was “murder”.
Church bells rang out on Sunday morning as a signal to the faithful to vote against lifting the ban. Opponents of abortion have held vigils in recent days, praying that the referendum gets defeated.
There was widespread condemnation, including from those against lifting the ban, at the beginning of the campaign when anti-abortion activists plastered the walls of San Marino with posters featuring a child with Down’s syndrome. The caption read: “I’m an anomaly, does that mean I have fewer rights than you?”
Other posters featured the image of a foetus alongside the message: “I’m a child even at 12 weeks, save me!”
San Marino has long lagged behind other European countries on women’s rights. A referendum in 1982 – the first held in the state – to scrap a law that took away citizenship from women who married a foreigner was defeated. The law was eventually revoked by parliament, but not until 2000.
Women were only given the right to vote in 1964, while divorce was made legal in 1986.
The referendum is being held after several attempts over the Past two decades to legalise abortion were sabotaged by a succession of mostly conservative governments.
Over 3,000 signatures were collected in support of the plebiscite, more than double the legal requirement.
Pro-choice campaigners feel hopeful that the high level of support will translate into victory.
The referendum result is expected at about 10.30pm CET.