ROME - Italy's opposition leader Matteo Salvini provoked a vehement backlash on Monday after insinuating that migrant women who went to emergency rooms to seek an abortion led an "uncivilized" life.
The comments from the ex-interior minister and head of the far-right League that some women having abortions were using emergency rooms "like health ATMs" came during a political rally in Rome on Sunday.
Anti-migrant diatribes regularly launched by Salvini, a staunch Catholic, have made him hugely popular among supporters, who see in his nationalist "Italians first" messages a way to restore Italian pride.
"Emergency room nurses in Milan let me know there are women who have shown up for the seventh time for an abortion," Salvini told supporters.
"It's not for me to judge, it's right for a woman to choose, but the emergency room can't be the solution for uncivilized lifestyles in 2020."
Just before his comment, Salvini had railed against the problem of "non-Italians" using emergency rooms for free, saying the "third time you have to pay."
The general secretary for the union of Italian doctors, Pina Onotri, told AFP it would be "impossible" for a woman to have an abortion in an emergency room, unless it involved a miscarriage.
Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978. The law allows women to terminate their pregnancies within three months of inception, with later-stage abortions permitable in some cases.
Women must request the procedure, then wait 7 days to lower the chance of their misgivings, the law states. Despite its legality, women often have a hard time getting an abortion because 70% of gynecologists whom the law allows to be "conscientious objectors" refuse to perform the procedure.
- 'Hands off women' -
Reaction to Salvini's comments was swift.
The head of Italy's Democratic Party (PD), Nicola Zingaretti, said Salvini's comments showed him increasingly desperate ahead of regional elections this spring where he hopes to win key regions of Italy for the League.
"Salvini mouths off even more every day because he's in trouble. With insults, outlandish theories and random numbers," Zingaretti wrote on Facebook.
"Luckily, Italian emergency rooms don't listen to his provocations. Get your hands off women."
The spokesman for the Five Stars Movement, which currently shares power with the PD, said women were the latest targets of Salvini.
"After migrants, gypsies and gays, Matteo Salvini now has it out for women who choose abortion," Giuseppe Buompane said on Twitter.
As interior minister, Salvini toughened the law to make it harder for charity ships carrying rescued migrants from the Mediterranean to dock at Italian ports.
Italy has long argued that it has taken the brunt of the migrants who have reached Europe's shores, and Salvini's tough stance against them has helped him in the polls.
The country's medical community cautioned that Salvini's comments were inaccurate.
For the gynecologist Gisella Giampa at the Sandro Pertini hospital in Rome, Salvini was taking "rare cases" and generalizing.
"Before speaking, he could inform himself, and, when one wants to be a statesman, not to take his information from one single nurse."