At Last, Italy Legalizes Same-Sex Civil Unions

№1, December 2016

Pressured by the European Court of Human Rights, Italian authorities have adopted a law that allows same-sex couples to register civil unions. However, there  is still a long way to go for Italy to approve same-sex marriages, human rights advocates say.

Final vote on same-sex civil unions bill1 prompted celebrations both inside and outside the Italian Parliament.

On the evening of May 11 2016, after 372 deputies had voted for the bill, with only 51 votes against it and 99 abstaining, the Chamber of Deputies burst into  prolonged applause. So did LBGT activists, gay couples and supporters of the bill  who  had gathered near the Trevi fountain in Rome, carrying rainbow flags2.

It was a long-awaited victory for them: they were finally recognised and protected by the state, says Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT programme at  Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“It is actually the first time that, despite  the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church and conservative politicians, finally something was achieved for  LBGT people and same-sex couples on the legislative level,” Dittrich told Legal Dialogue. “It is something that is now there, in the law, and LGBT people in Italy now feel that they are taken seriously.”

Better Than Nothing

Italy is the last among the countries that  founded the EU to adopt legislation recognising same-sex unions. The move followed years of legal debate – both in local courts and in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

In the past seven years, several Italian courts have ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to legal recognition of their partnership. In July 2015, ECtHR ruled that Italy violated the right to privacy and family life in failing to provide sufficient and reliable legal protection for same-sex relationships3.

A version of the bill that was adopted in May was first introduced by  Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party in 2014. Among other things, it included a provision allowing a  person in a same-sex couple to adopt their partner’s children. This provision elicited the most heated debates and was later excluded from the bill.

“The government was forced to take it out because [the bill in this version] couldn’t get a majority [of votes in the parliament],” HRW’s Dittrich explains. “It makes, of course, a big difference between civil union and marriage, because when you’re married, you can adopt the child of your partner from their previous marriage.”

That is why a lot of LGBT couples were not exactly happy with the current version of the bill: it was a very “watered-down” version of what the government had proposed at first,  Dittrich says. “But, really, it was a choice between a bill that was halfway there or nothing at all. So, finally, I think most people decided that this is the best thing we can have for now.”

Now –  from June 5 – same-sex couples are protected, Dittrich says, and recognised as a proper legal entity when it comes to inheritance or visiting rights in hospitals if one of the partners  is seriously ill. “There used to be problems [in these two spheres], but there shouldn’t be anymore,” he adds.

Same-Sex Marriage: Still A Long Shot

LGBT couples in Italy are still willing to see complete marriage equality. Unfortunately, in Italy, a country under very strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church, same-sex marriage is an obvious long shot. “Even in progressive political parties lots of members are Roman Catholics, ergo under pressure from the Church. And the Church vehemently opposes same-sex marriage,” Dittrich says. “They think that marriage is only supposed to take place between a man and a woman, as it was approved by God, and it shouldn’t be open to same-sex couples.”

Currently, same-sex marriage is allowed in such EU countries as Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland)4.

Its lighter version, same-sex civil union, however, seems to be making its way into conservative EU countries. In addition to Italy, same-sex civil unions became legal in Estonia in 2016 – in accordance with a law5 passed in 2014. Estonia is the first post-Soviet country to legally recognise LGBT partnerships.

In a civil union, same-sex couples are entitled to joint possession of property, succession rights, shared financial obligations, access to each other’s private information, and resolution of issues related to the end of life. Unlike in Italy, partners in a civil union in Estonia have limited adoption rights: they are allowed to adopt their partner’s children. They are not allowed, however, to adopt children together  who have no relation to the couple6.

“Passing this law sends a very important message – Estonia is a country that respects human rights,” Kari Kaesper, executive director at the Estonian Human Rights  Centre, told The Wall Street Journal. “Especially in light of what is happening in Russia, how human rights are treated there…It is clear that Estonia is on its way to overcome the dead hand of its Soviet past.”7


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1.  Website of the official newspaper of the Italian Republic, Gazzetta Ufficiale:
2. Elisabetta Povoledo, Italy Approved Same-Sex Unions, The New York Times, 11.05.2016,
3. Human Rights Watch, Italy: Same-Sex Civil Unions Made Possible After Vote, 11.05.2016,
4. Human Rights Watch, Italy: Same-Sex Civil Unions Made Possible After Vote, 11.05.2016,
5. Riigi Teataja, the official Estonian publication,
6. Peter Roudik, Estonia: Legalization of Civil Partnerships, Global Legal Monitor, 14.01.2016,
7. Liis Kangsepp, Estonia Passes Law Recognizing Gay Partnerships, The Wall Street Journal, 09.10.2016,
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