Italy politely reminds all women that their clocks are ticking.
Screenshot from http://www.fertilityday2016.it/
By Claire Zillman
September 2, 2016

If you’re in Italy, mark your calendar for Sept. 22, when the country will celebrate its state-sponsored “Fertility Day” to promote family planning and parenthood. Think that name is bad? It gets worse.

The government’s campaign aimed at upping Italy’s birth rate, which health minister Beatrice Lorenzin introduced this week, features a series of 12 promotional images that were supposed to be encouraging but came off as oddly threatening and, alas, went viral for all the wrong reasons. One with an image of a woman holding an hourglass says: “Beauty has no age. But fertility does,” according to Quartz. Another reads, “Male fertility is much more vulnerable than you might think,” and shows a browning banana peel.

Italy’s low birth rate—along with its aging population and generous social services—is a threat to its financial future. According to World Bank data, there were 1.4 childbirths per Italian woman in 2014, well below the world average of 2.45. For comparison, the U.K.’s rate was 1.8 and the United States’ was 1.9.

Reuters reports that Italy’s birthrate landed at 1.35 last year, giving the country its lowest birth total in 154 years.

The trouble with the Fertility Day campaign isn’t that the low birthrate won’t cause real problems, it’s that those problems shouldn’t be women’s to solve. That’s especially true since Italian workplace culture is still stacked against women, as evidenced by a practice known as “dimissioni in bianco,” which a 2014 report by the European Parliament defined as “employers making [the] hiring of young women conditional to signing an undated letter of resignation to be used to justify dismissal in case of pregnancy.”

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Another stark example pregnancy prejudice came in the recent race for Rome mayor. When Giorgia Meloni announced her bid for the office while pregnant, she garnered unsolicited advice from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who told a radio station, “A mother cannot be mayor. Being mayor means being in your office 14 hours a day. I don’t think this could be the right choice for Meloni.” (Berlusconi was ousted from office in 2011 after a string of sex and financial scandals.)

Critics of the Fertility Day campaign have also cited the nation’s high joblessness as a reason for the low birthrate and as the real issue—rather than women’s reproductive decisions—that the government should address. In July, unemployment in the country was 11.4%—fourth-highest in the 28-member European Union.

The opposition 5-Star Movement said in a statement that women “responsibly consider the future” before having kids. “There’s no work [in Italy]. People aren’t having kids because it’s not possible.”

Even Prime Minister Matteo Renzi criticized the campaign, telling a radio station Thursday, “I don’t know of any of my friends who had kids after they saw an advertisement.”

“If you want to create a society that invests in its future and has children, you have to make sure the underlying conditions are there,” he said, citing the need for good jobs and childcare services.

The tone deafness of the campaign also reflects Italy’s on-going struggle to get more women in positions of power. Women made some gains in June when 5 Star’s Virginia Raggi became the first female mayor of Rome, and Chiara Appendino, also of the Five Star Movement, clinched Turin’s mayorship. But still, just 28% of Italy’s Senators and 31% of its House members are women. There are five women in Renzi’s 16-member cabinet—down from eight in 2014.

Italian media reports on Thursday indicated that Lorenzin was open to restructuring the campaign amid the on-going backlash. The Ministry of Health told Fortune that Lorenzin stood by the “principal themes” of the campaign but is going to “improve the communicative approach.”

The campaign should be scrapped altogether since it implies that women are nothing more than baby-making machines—and it doesn’t help that it’s reminding people of the childrearing approach of dictator Benito Mussolini.

This story has been updated to include the Ministry of Health’s comments.

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