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Italy’s ‘fetus graves’ renew abortion debate

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Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities. 

Rome, Italy – The words on the crucifix read Francesca Rossi*. Yet Francesca Rossi was standing right in front of it, alive.

Many other wooden crosses bearing only a female name and a date were also stuck in the ground nearby, some dating back as far as 2004.

The date on Rossi’s was 2019, the year she had terminated a six-month pregnancy with an abortion.

Buried underneath were the remains of fetuses.

“This is pure violence,” she told Al Jazeera, describing how the scene has haunted her dreams since last week when she first came across the “graves” in a cemetery on the outskirts of Rome.

Rossi had never agreed for the fetus to be buried there; nor had she agreed for her name to be used in such a way.

“In Italy, you give birth to a child, and they will have the father’s name; you have an abortion, and they will have the name of the mother,” she said.

Rossi visited section 108 of Flaminio cemetery days after another woman had described her experience.

The woman found her name on a cross after reading an article about the so-called “gardens of angels” in a local newspaper.

She posted the details in a Facebook post, which led to the movement.

At least 130 women are now asking prosecutors to investigate who was behind the burials. Meanwhile, women’s rights associations such as Differenza Donna have been gathering testimonies to coordinate joint legal action.

The scandal has shed light on the stigma Italian women face, as well as the barriers to their reproductive rights, even though the right to abortion has been legal since 1978.

Women have the legal right to end a pregnancy up to 90 days old.

After three months, as in Rossi’s case, abortions can take place if the child’s birth or fetal abnormalities pose a severe risk to the woman’s life and mental health.

But over the years, Roman Catholic groups have been conducting fetus burials by striking agreements with local public facilities, including hospitals and cemeteries.

Associations such as Difendere la vita con Maria – Defend life with Mary – are liaising with about 20 hospitals across Italy after having signed “collection and storage” deals.

At their own expense, these groups sometimes provide the hospital’s morgue with a dedicated refrigerator for the remains.

They justify the practice by their own interpretation of a law which states that if an abortion takes place after 20 weeks of pregnancy, family members or “someone on their behalf” can request – within 24 hours – to bury the fetus.

If such a request is not put forward, the local health authority is responsible.

Catholic groups interpret “someone on their behalf” as an authorisation to collect and bury a fetus regardless of the woman’s consent.

“The fetus is an individual, it’s no one’s property, hence it holds rights as much as the woman,” said Stefano Di Battista, spokesman for Difendere la vita con Maria.

But Italian law states an individual gains legal standing following their birth, and not before.

Di Battista said his association was not involved in the burials at Flaminio cemetery.

San Camillo Hospital, the facility where the woman denouncing the practice online terminated her pregnancy, and the branch of the Rome municipality that deals with cemeteries also denied any responsibility.

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‘The ultimate punishment’

Rossi said discovering her name at the cemetery felt like “the ultimate punishment” in a painful journey.

She had already experienced stigma and feelings of abandonment.

“I am irritated that the first comments by politicians focused on [the breach of] privacy, while we should be way more scandalised by how women get physically and psychologically tortured in hospitals,” she said.

In September 2019, Rossi decided to terminate her pregnancy after discovering the fetus had a serious heart problem.

“The psychiatrist of the hospital kept trying to change my mind. They kept showing me by ultrasounds the shape of the baby, to hear the sound of the heartbeat to make me change my mind as if the pain was not enough already,” she said.

Rossi was given four abortion pills, with no information, she said, and with no one assisting the seven-hour ordeal.

She and her husband later paid for themselves to go to trauma therapy following the abortion; no mental health support was provided.

“I was in no man’s land,” she said.

A taboo

Rossi’s story reflects the challenges faced by women and the medical community against the backdrop of increasingly influential Catholic movements, particularly in areas that vote for right-wing parties.

For instance, the local council of Verona, a stronghold of the far-right League party, passed a motion in 2018 allowing the use of public funds for anti-abortion rights programmes while the mayor declared the city “pro-abortion rights”.

Also in 2018, Member of Parliament Maurizio Gasparri of Forza Italia proposed to give legal rights to fetuses, which would rule as illegal any termination of pregnancy. Parliament is still reviewing his proposal.

In June, the region of Umbria abolished the one-day hospital treatment of the RU-486 abortion pill, forcing women to stay in hospital for three days to “recover”. Known as a “medical abortion”, in many other countries this procedure does not require hospital stays of any length, and can often be carried out at home.

To complicate matters, a growing number of doctors and anaesthesiologists have reportedly objected to perform abortions as the practice goes against their religious or personal beliefs, as the law permits.

Seventy percent of gynaecologists object, as well as 46.3 percent of anaesthesiologists, according to Italy’s health ministry.

Objectors can pose a challenge to non-objectors who may find themselves alone and overloaded, both technically and emotionally.

“Of course the majority do not want [to perform abortions] – it’s a lot of troubles: you are stigmatised, exhausted, always in the eye of the storm, doing a massive effort, for no additional money,” said Maria Toschi, gynecologist and vice president of the Association of Territorial Gynecologists (AGITE).

After retiring, Toschi returned to perform abortions in the Marche region where there is a 90 percent objection.

Silvio Viale, a gynaecologist in the Sant’Anna hospital in Turin, however, blames a lack of dedicated services.

“There is no political will to create a dedicated sector with qualitative and appropriated services for abortion,” said Viale, who spent years advocating for Italian hospitals to offer medical abortions to women.

He added that pro-abortion rights movements have been emboldened by this void, combined with the lack of action by left-wing pro-abortion rights movements.

“We live in a Catholic country where abortion is a taboo, a theme to do political ideology with, but for which no one is willing to dirty the hands.”

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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