ROME — Italy’s efforts to combat infertility and reverse one of Europe’s lowest birthrates stumbled badly Thursday following an ad campaign denounced as sexist, racist and ignorant of the economic reasons why Italians aren’t having babies.

Italy on Thursday celebrated its first-ever “Fertility Day,” promoted by the Health Ministry to prevent infertility and sterility through education and health programs.

Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin sought to keep on message during the official launch, decrying the fact that 700,000 Italians who want to have children can’t because of infertility problems. The campaign focuses on tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse.

But she was on the defensive after her ministry was forced on the eve of the event to remove a “Fertility Day” publicity flyer criticized as racist.

The flyer showed four smiling, light-skinned adults at the beach illustrating “good habits” for reproductive health. The image was placed over a darker image of a group of young people, including a black man, smoking — an illustration of the “bad companions” who should be “abandoned.”

The criticism was swift and harsh, including from within the governing Democratic Party.

Lorenzin said Thursday she had approved a different ad and didn’t know how the mix-up occurred, and that she had fired the official responsible.

Earlier ads in the “Fertility Day” campaign were criticized as being sexist for featuring a woman holding her belly with one hand and an hourglass with the other with the tagline: “Beauty doesn’t have an age. Fertility does.”

Italy in 2015 registered the lowest number of births since the peninsula was unified over 150 years ago, with 1.35 live births per woman. It was the fifth straight year of declines, while the mean childbearing age for Italian women has grown steadily to 31.6 years.

Many Italian women hold off having children, or have only one, for a variety of reasons: Inflexible work schedules, partners who don’t share in childrearing and lack of affordable day care.

Outside the “Fertility Day” launch, a few dozen protesters, including gay and lesbian activists, sharply criticized the Health Ministry initiative for having ignored what they said were the real economic reasons behind Italy’s low birthrate: a stagnant economy, low-paying, temporary work contracts for young people and insufficient public day care.

“It seems hypocritical coming from a government that asks us to have children without creating the conditions” to raise them, said Marica di Pierri of the Association a Sud group.


Paolo Santalucia contributed.