Catholic Church victorious in Italy fertility vote
An emotionally charged referendum intended to dismantle Italy’s strict law on assisted fertility failed on Monday due to low turnout, in what was widely seen as a victory for the Roman Catholic Church.
Just under 26 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot during two days of voting—leaving the referendum far short of the quorum of 50 percent plus one.
Bishops had urged a boycott of the poll and priests had used pulpits to rally the faithful behind the slogan: “Life cannot be put to a vote: Don’t vote”.
“The Italian people who know how to defend life have won,” said Maria Burani Procaccini, a lawmaker from the centre-right, thanking the Church for “acting with conviction and force”.
The new law, passed last year, is the most restrictive in Europe. It bans egg and sperm donations as well as embryo research and freezing, and allows only three eggs at a time to be fertilised in the test tube.
The referendum was seen as a test of the Church’s influence in Italy at a time when it is losing clout in Europe.
In his first foray into Italian politics since he was elected in April, Pope Benedict threw his support behind bishops leading the campaign for a boycott, calling them “truly good pastors” who wanted to “enlighten the choices of Catholics”.
“Church exultant: goal achieved,” Il Messaggero daily said on its front page when the referendum appeared set to fail.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose government drew up the law, also avoided possible embarrassment, even though the bill cut across Italy’s traditional political alliances.
In a sign of deep divisions sparked by the referendum, two leading members of the conservative National Alliance—the second biggest party in Berlusconi’s coalition—quit the group’s leadership on Monday in protest against the party’s founder.
Gianfranco Fini had shocked his supporters when he announced he would not only participate in the poll, instead of backing the boycott, but would vote “yes” on some of the sections.
“WILD WEST OF FERTILITY”
Apathy and the complicated nature of the referendum have also been blamed for the low voter turnout.
Those who did actually make it to the polls predictably voted overwhelmingly to dismantle the law, with between 75 and 90 percent casting ballots for “Yes” on the four sections.
The law was a response to what many saw as a medical ‘Wild West’, where a 62-year-old woman had become a mother and cloning seemed around the corner.
The debate has been the most emotional since divorce and abortion were legalised in the 1970s - laws that the Church tried to have overturned with national referendums.
The number of infertile couples seeking fertility help abroad has tripled since the law was approved.
The ‘Vote Yes’ campaign won support from much of the centre-left opposition, doctors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists and movie stars such as Monica Bellucci, who famously asked: “What do politicians and priests know about my ovaries?”
Many say the law legalising abortion may now come under pressure, since it is at odds with provisions of the fertility legislation that recognise the legal rights of embryos.
“Attention will now turn to abortion,” said Equal Opportunities Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo, who broke ranks with her party to support the referendum. “I expect in the short-to-medium term someone will take the initiative.”
But with a general election due in the next 11 months, it is unlikely that lawmakers will modify either law in a hurry.
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