Italian women's abortion rights are facing a head-on challenge from one of the nation's most famous political pundits, a man who calls himself a "devout atheist" and whose countrywide election campaign on a pro-life platform has provoked violent protests.
Giuliano Ferrara, 56, a communist activist turned socialist turned conservative, was a minister in Silvio Berlusconi's short-lived first government, chairs a nightly political chat show and edits a thin but influential daily paper, Il Foglio.
But now he has rebranded himself as a passionate opponent of abortion and launched his own list of candidates with the slogan "Abortion? No thanks".
His campaign blasted into the headlines last week when at a public meeting in the left-wing city of Bologna he was pelted with eggs, tomatoes, oranges, bottles and coins. After a lengthy contretemps with protesters he was sped away from the scene in a police car. Further protests have dogged his subsequent appearances: feminists and libertarians finding his television fame, his views, even his size a lightning rod for their anger.
Mr Ferrara's crusade was prompted by Romano Prodi's government's success in persuading the United Nations General Assembly to vote in December for a global moratorium on capital punishment. The following day Mr Ferrara trumped it by proposing a global moratorium on abortion as well.
At the time it seemed another piece of capricious mischief by one of Italy's most accomplished self-publicists. But now it appears he was in earnest. "Abortion is the greatest scandal of our times," he says. "It has become a habit with no cultural or moral implications. This is unacceptable."
In his stump speeches he claims that 50 million foetuses are aborted per year, and that one billion have been aborted in the past 30 years. "This scar on our society has made us all sadder," he claims, "whether we are aware of it or not."
He launched his Pro-Life List with candidates standing for election across the country, though only for the Camera dei Deputati, Italy's lower house.
Mr Ferrara denies he is campaigning for the repeal of Italy's abortion law, Article 194, but rather for it to be applied in the way it was intended. "Article 194 was enacted to fight backstreet abortion," he says. "Its title is 'the law for the protection of maternity'; it also refers to the duty to protect life from its beginning.
"It was not a law passed in favour of abortion, and once backstreet abortion was eliminated its effect should have been to put a brake on abortion. But instead abortion was brought into the open and became a symbol of freedom, a typical example of ideological idiocy from the Sixties."
Rather than calling for the abolition of the law, he says he is appealing for more resources to help women have children. "Thirty to 40 per cent of women who have abortions do so because it's difficult to raise children in this society," he says. "This is a society opposed to childbirth, where people don't have children any more, there is no reverence towards them, not enough resources for them ... These attitudes are typical of a decadent society, a society in decline."
Italy votes on Sunday and Monday, and the two prime contenders are Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the People of Freedom coalition, and Walter Veltroni, the outgoing mayor of Rome and the head of the newly formed Democratic Party, which aspires to displace Mr Berlusconi's as the biggest mass party.
It has been an election campaign without fireworks. But Mr Ferrara, Falstaffian in girth and with a shaggy red beard, who claims to have been a CIA agent in the 1980s, has brought it to life. On his nightly political chat show he shows a talent approaching genius for taking positions that infuriate Italy's chattering classes yet keep them glued to the screen. Now he's done it again, on the national political stage.Reuse content