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Italy's top court rules children should be given surnames of both parents

'The surname is part of one's identity and personal history, a story that we can now pass on written in the feminine.'

Italy's top court rules children should be given surnames of both parents
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/Jordi Salas

A top Italian court ruled Wednesday that children should be given the surnames of both parents at birth and not just that of the father. Declaring the automatic practice of only giving children their father's surname "constitutionally illegitimate," the Italian Constitutional Court in Rome said in a statement that the tradition was "discriminatory and harmful to the identity" of the child. According to The Washington Post, the court added that both parents should each have a say in their child's surname as it constitutes a "fundamental element of personal identity."


Parents will be able to choose the order of surnames or decide to use only one, the court said—which would for the first time make it broadly possible for children to carry only their mothers' last names. As per the statement on the ruling, the rule should apply to children born to married and unmarried parents, as well as adopted children. Up until now, except for certain circumstances, Italian families have been unable to give their children their mother's surname alone. When compared to other European countries like France, Germany and Spain—where both surnames can be used for children—Italy has been slow in embracing the recognition of the mother's family name.


"The Constitutional Court canceled the last patriarchal legacy in family law," Cecilia D'Elia, a member of Parliament and a leader on women's issues in the Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter. "The mother's name will have the same dignity as the father's, a sign of civilization." According to The New York Times, Giulia Crivellini of the leftist Radical Party also echoed D'Elia's comments, calling it a "historical day" for the European nation. At the center of the court's decision were the grievances of a family of five from the Basilicata region. Two of the couple's three children carried their mother's last name as they were initially not recognized by their father.


When they sought to give their youngest one—born after the couple had married—the mother's last name as well, their request was reportedly denied because having only the mother's surname was an option only for children of single mothers or in cases where fathers were unwilling to participate in the children's lives. "For them, it was a matter of family identity," said Giampaolo Brienza, one of the family's lawyers. "One of the eldest siblings is 14, she could not take a different surname all of a sudden." 


Domenico Pittella, another lawyer for the family, said in a statement that the ruling was a "landmark judgment" in Italy that "acknowledged that it is in the best interest of the newborn child that the choices of his parents" dictate his name, rather than being "imposed by an outdated model of the patriarchal family." Parliament will now have to pass corresponding legislation that includes changes to succession law and outlines how the surnames will pass from generation to generation. The Italian minister of family and equal opportunities, Elena Bonetti, said in a statement that the government would fully support parliament in this process.


"We need to give substance [to the decision]... and it is a high priority and urgent task of politics to do so," she said, calling the ruling "another fundamental step in achieving equal rights between the women and men of our country." Speaking to the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, Bonetti said that the practice of automatically assigning the father’s surname to a child amounted to discrimination against women and children. Until now, Italy had carried "a story of male biographies," Bonetti said. "The surname is part of one's identity and personal history, a story that we can now pass on written in the feminine."

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