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I was 22 and freshly graduated when I moved to Florence. Two friends had decided to go out there to study Italian, and in a desperate bid to put off the grown-up world of "real" jobs and responsibilities, I decided to tag along as well.
Within a few weeks, I’d set up a little life for myself out there, sharing a flat in the bohemian Santo Spirito neighbourhood and working part-time as an au pair.
The only downside was that I’d left my boyfriend Michael back in the UK. “Well, at least it’ll be good to be off the pill for a while,” I’d said, having made the decision to leave my six-month supply of contraception behind. I’d been taking it almost non-stop for four years at this point, and this seemed like a good opportunity to take a break. After all, we could easily rely on condoms for visits.
One weekend Michael flew over and – you guessed it – a condom broke. “We’ll just have to get the morning-after pill,” I said, naively neglecting to think about the fact that the rules in Italy might be different to the rules back home. “We can go to a pharmacy tomorrow.”
Unfortunately the next day was Sunday and nothing was open, so it wasn’t until Monday that we found ourselves in a pharmacy asking, in stumbling Italian, for the morning-after pill. It was only when the woman behind the counter asked to see my prescription that I realised my oversight: It turns out in Italy you need a prescription for emergency contraception.
Feeling a little stupid for not having thought of that earlier, I asked where I could get one, and was directed to the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in the city centre.
So off I duly trotted, with Michael in tow. I explained my situation to the hospital receptionist, who directed me to A&E. I filled out some forms and was told to wait. The two women manning the A&E desk were behaving coldly, and when Michael and I went to sit down one of them waved her finger at him like he was an unruly toddler.
“Not you!” she barked. “Patients only in the waiting room.”
I translated this to Michael, and told him to go find our friends and that I’d call him when I was done. At this point I still hoped everything would be sorted within an hour or so.*
Three hours later, and I was still waiting. It was lunchtime and I was hungry, but I was told if I left the waiting room I’d be forfeiting my place in the queue to see a doctor.
Luckily, at this point my friend Jen appeared, armed with snacks and her mad Italian skills. I chowed down before asking her to help me speak with the women at the front desk. I’d tried to before, but with my limited Italian and their limited English I wasn’t all that confident that my situation had been clearly conveyed. It seemed mad to me that I was in A&E for something so simple.
As we approached the front desk, the two women look at me with unconcealed hostility.
“Can you ask them how much longer my wait might be?” I said to Jen, who immediately rattled off the question in rapid Italian. The two women looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
I didn’t need Jen to translate their response for me, but nevertheless she did. “They say it’ll take as long as it takes.”
“OK,” I said. “Can you ask them if there’s anywhere else in Florence where I could get a prescription today then? Like, maybe a private doctor or something? Is that a thing here?”
Keep in mind that I was raised in the UK, the land of the NHS, and that my natural instinct was the turn to the state was help in such matters. Private healthcare really isn’t part of my cultural consciousness.
Jen asked them, and the two women shook their heads firmly.
“No,” one says. “There is nowhere else.”
“Only here,” added the other one. “You must wait.”
I later learnt that this was a blatant lie. The city was filled with private doctors, many of whom would’ve happily seen me that day. In fact, the reason there was no sexual health service provision at this hospital was because no self-respecting Italian would ever go to the public hospital for something as trivial as the morning-after pill. If they’d explained this and sent me on my way, that would’ve been fine. I still don’t know why they didn’t.
Jen tried to ask more questions, but by this time they’d tired of her and told her she had to leave as she wasn’t a patient.
“Can’t she stay with me to help translate?” I asked, but they shook their heads and shooed her out.
Another three hours passed and, as the shadows gradually moved along the waiting room walls, I watched as people who’d come in before me were called away to see a doctor, one by one. Soon I’ll be next, I thought to myself, but another hour passed and I noticed that I was now surrounded entirely by people who’d come in after me. I tried to speak to the staff again, but they told me I could either wait or go, my choice. I waited.
By now afternoon was turning into evening. I’ve done the period maths, and realised I was slap bang in the most fertile part of my cycle. I was also painfully aware that, for every hour that passed, the efficacy of emergency contraception decreased. I start wondering how hard it would be to access an abortion in Italy.
Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore and went to speak to the women one more time. This time, instead of asking how long it might be, I asked where I was on the waiting list. Begrudgingly, the woman looked at her list, and in disbelieve I watched her finger travel down its full length as she looked for my name.
“You are number eighteen,” she informed me.
I did a quick headcount of the waiting room. “But… there are eighteen people here.”
She didn’t even look at me, just nodded.
That was the moment I realised they had no intention of letting me see a doctor if they could help it, and I just lost it. I’d like to say that I made a stirring speech about women’s reproductive rights (preferably in fluent Italian), but instead I just burst into tears and had to be consoled by an American exchange student with a fractured toe.
Eventually I took myself to the toilets to calm down. When I returned I informed the women, between shaky sobs, that I was leaving.
“But if you go you’ll give up your place in the queue,” one of them said.
“What, my last place?” I choked, and signed the paperwork they put in front of me.
I did get the pill in the end, after making an emergency appointment with a lovely private doctor the following day. He nodded the whole time I was recounting my hospital debacle.
“Yes, I’ve had quite a few people come in here with similar stories,” he said. “Some of the Catholic staff refuse to prescribe it for conscience reasons – I’ve even heard cases of women having to go to two, three different hospitals because the doctor on call wouldn’t write them a prescription.”
“Is that legal?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Well, it happens.”
I paid him €30 for his trouble, grabbed my prescription like it was a prize and hightailed it out of there to find the nearest pharmacy. I was almost slap bang on the 72-hour cut-off point.
I went back on the contraceptive pill not long afterward. Even though I’d planned on taking a break from it, I never wanted to find myself in a situation like that again. Within a month of returning to the UK, I got myself an IUD just to make doubly sure.
I’ll never know why I had such a bad experience at that hospital; a friend of mine had to go there for exactly the same reason just a few weeks later, and she saw someone immediately without any issues. Luck of the draw, I suppose. I’m guessing the staff members on duty the day I went just didn’t approve of the morning-after pill, which is why they went out of their way to prevent me from getting it.
My limited language skills and youth probably didn’t help – young foreign women in Florence can have a reputation for partying hard and sleeping around (hardly surprising in a city full of tourists and study abroad students). Perhaps that made them particularly unsympathetic.
I know what I experienced is just a drop in the ocean compared to what far too many women go through everyday across the world, and in many ways I’m lucky that this is the worst incursion I’ve had on my reproductive rights.
But still, I don’t thing I’ll ever forget the feeling – of anger, and helplessness, and dehumanisation – that came from being prevented from accessing the healthcare that I was entitled to when I needed it.