by Patrick Hanafin. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007. 124pp. Hardback. $99.95/£55.00. ISBN: 9780754646358.

Reviewed by Jennifer Woodward, Department of Political Science, University at Albany. Email: Jennifer.woodward01 [at]


Why would a repressive piece of legislation be produced at the end of a period of substantial progressivism in society? Patrick Hanafin hopes to find out how this happened in Italy when repressive reproductive legislation was passed following a period of progress in the country’s gender relations. He explores the development of legal regulation on human reproduction in Italy from 1978 (when legalized abortion was introduced to the country) until 2004 when restrictive regulations on assisted reproductive technologies were passed. The central question he asks is how Italy, which was moving away from a heteropatriarchal conception of family in the 1970s, was successful in introducing a law that gave symbolic recognition to human embryos and restricted access to assisted reproductive technologies. Hanafin’s answer involves a complex interweaving of the relationship between the state and civil society, the transformation of the political party system in the 1990s, competing ethical worldviews found within society and legal documents, the rebirth of the Roman Catholic Church as a political force, the decline of the feminist movement, and the changing conceptions of the status of women in Italian society (p.2).

In the introductory chapter, Hanafin argues that “the regulation of human reproduction is intimately linked with the question of the relation of the citizen to the state” (p.1). Emerging from patriarchal discourses and law, he argues that women’s bodies within democracies are sites of ideological contestation regarding the nation, community, and identity. Although Hanafin focuses on contemporary Italy and the influence of the Catholic Church in producing a complex narrative of the family that is both progressive and traditional, his argument is applicable to other countries as well. His discussion of how feminists in Italy have provided counter-narratives to the patriarchal view of the family, in a manner that re-conceptualized the role of women in society and provided them a voice within the public sphere also provides insights into the feminist movement more generally (p.3).

In this chapter, Hanafin also presents vitapolitics, his theoretical framework. “Ethopolitics” (an individual governance of the self) found success in Italy’s feminist movement of the 1970s and enabled the reshaping of gender relations within the country. Vitapolitics (the interactions between micropolitics of the movements of individuals and public officials) provides a form of politics that allows for morality based law. Hanafin argues that in recent years “ethopolitics” has been eclipsed by “vitapolitics.” It allows for a perspective that considers embryos to be seen as active individual agents within the law and for women [*145] become mere vessels for the reproductive needs of the nation (p.5). Not only abortion, but the use of assisted reproductive technologies place women outside of the acceptable citizenship in vitapolitics. In other words, women in a society dominated by vitapolitics are not good citizens if they control (or even attempt to control) their reproductive decisions. As such, Hanafin argues, women are reattached to the private sphere and the embryo takes on a symbolic value that represents the survival of traditional heteropatriarchal notions of the family.

Hanafin does a particularly nice job describing the role of the Catholic Church in conducting a discursive war on the feminist movement in Italy with the change in political climate. With the Church allied to conservatives, moderates, and liberals the distinctions between the secular and religious blurred. As a result, diverse viewpoints were no longer heard in matters of bioethical controversy. The “culture of life” espoused by the Church became a “rhetorical devise for introducing a de facto theocratic state in a de jure pluralist democracy” (p.11).

In the second chapter, Hanafin discusses why it has been so hard for Italy to overcome its ideal of paternalistic families. The fascist state introduced a legal framework that resulted in a second class citizenship for women as they were relegated to the home. This occurred through laws prohibiting birth control and abortion, to incentives such as tax bonuses for women who gave birth on a regular basis. This narrative and its corresponding legal framework continued in the post-war republic (p.16). Then the Constitutional Court in 1968 overturned a discriminatory law on adultery, which Hanafin argues was the point of departure from the immediate post-war heteropatriarchal model of family. Thereafter, Italy’s legislature began a number of reforms that reflected the more liberal reconceived notion of the family, including the legalization of abortion, removal of provisions to obtain birth control, and the defeat of traditionalist referendums (p.23). This chapter contains a number of insights into the pre- and post-war conditions of gender roles that could find interesting parallels with other countries. My only criticism is that the chapter could benefit from more discussion of these roles and how they were transformed in the post-war conditions of Italy. In particular, it would have been worthwhile to have an expanded discussion of how the post-war democracy changed the relationship between men and the state, but not between women and the state (p.11).

The third chapter covers the debate over abortion and how it led to a questioning of acceptable forms of organization. Hanafin discusses a legal and subsequently a medical system that treats women obtaining an abortion with contempt and punishes medical providers who do not conscientiously object to the procedure. He argues that it is the patriarchal and conservative cultural values that undermined the seemingly more liberal legislation (p.38). Chapter four explores the evolution of conservative resistance to the legalization of abortion and the feminist movement’s quest for reproductive freedom. Hanafin concludes the chapter by arguing that the rights of embryos came to supersede the rights of women as a result of the convergence between Catholic interest [*146] groups campaigning to incorporate embryonic rights into the legislative agenda, the lack of ideological commitments of the political parties on this area of contestation (and their reliance on the Catholic Church for support), as well as a weakening feminist movement (p.58). In both chapters, Hanafin ties his arguments to Italian theorists in a superb manner in order to frame and support his arguments.

The fifth chapter looks at how the resistance of the Catholic Church was successful in introducing a 2004 law that greatly limits (and for single women prohibits) assisted forms of reproduction. This law, Hanafin argues, shows how heteropatriarchal power can overcome norms of autonomy in a pluralistic society and has resulted in declining in-vitro fertilization within Italy and more couples turning outside of Italy for the treatment if they can afford it (pp.12, 59, 79). The chapter includes a valuable account of the discursive history of the term “conception” and links former laws on adultery to the ban on donors found in the 2004 law (pp.60-63). As in chapter three, Hanafin incorporates Cavarero’s patriarchal framework of women as mere carriers of seeds in a manner that both supports and makes his arguments more applicable to a comparative framework. For example, his discussion of the evolution of abortion law in Ireland shows how discourses that consider women deceitful results in “forced pregnancy in the name of some notion of idealized citizenship” following rape (p.75). Hanafin also briefly includes Belgium and Spain in his analysis.

Finally, the sixth chapter calls for a reframing of reproductive citizenship. Hanafin argues that reconstructing autonomy and privacy can increase the odds of using rights claims to promote liberalism through the right to reproductive freedom. In this final chapter, Hanafin’s interest in Cavarero (1995; 2000; 2002) takes center stage as he argues for a reframing based upon her arguments. Cavarero provides a conception of women who have had their voices and bodies silenced and made invisible by a male symbolic order. Female symbolic spaces, what Cavarero calls the “absolute local,” must be created (p.94). This space requires a deconstruction of belonging and “the marginalization and of qualities and the depoliticalisation of the what” (p.94). In the end, Hanafin ties Cavarero’s political praxis with Cigarini’s (1995) notion of “above the law” (where women engage in their own relation with the law using their own voices rather than those imposed upon them by masculine law) in a manner that coincides well with the calls for reframing citizenship found within feminist thought.

CONCEIVING LIFE is an excellent example of the important intersections between politics, religion, civil society, gender, and the law. Not only does Hanafin’s work demonstrate a contribution to the aforementioned fields, but it also highlights the usefulness of a comparative approach to the study of law. Although firmly rooted in feminist theory, he shows a complex application of all these fields to his explanation for how regressive policy can be established in times of social progress. [*147]


Cavarero, Adriana. 1995. IN SPITE OF PLATO: A FEMINIST REWRITING OF ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cavarero, Adriana. 2000. RELATING NARRATIVES: STORYTELLING AND SELFHOOD. London: Routledge.

Cavarero, Adriana. 2002. A PIÙ VOCI: FILOSOFIA DELL’ ESPRESSIONE VOCALE. Milan: Fetrinelli.

Cigarini, Lia. 1995. LA POLITICA DEL DESIDERIO. Parma: Pratiche Editrice.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Jennifer Woodward.