Move to Repeal Italian Assisted Fertility Law Fails

An attempt to abolish Italy's strict law on assisted fertility has failed. It's being seen as a victory for the Catholic Church, which campaigned for a boycott of the poll. The fertility law recognizes the legal rights of embryos, and some women's groups fear Italy's legislation on abortion is now under threat.

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Italy will retain one of the world's most restrictive laws on assisted fertility. The country held a referendum on a plan to repeal the law, but for that vote to be binding, at least half the electorate had to show up. They didn't, and that's considered a victory for the Catholic Church, which had called for a boycott. Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

After two days of voting, only about one-quarter of eligible voters went to the polls, far short of the 50 percent quorum. The campaign was bitter. The Catholic Church is opposed to all forms of in vitro fertilization, and Italian bishops, with the endorsement of Pope Benedict XVI, openly campaigned in parishes and through the media, urging Italians to abstain from voting. The statute, introduced last year, restricts fertility treatment to heterosexual married couples, and it prohibits the screening of embryos for abnormalities. Voters were called on to lift a ban on embryo research, remove limits on the number of eggs that can be fertilized, lift the ban on egg and sperm donors and remove the article that attributes human rights to fertilized eggs.

Supporters of the referendum were stunned by the large number of those who boycotted the poll, but Daniele Capezzone, leader of the radical party, the main promoter of the referendum, does not believe the result is a Vatican victory.

Mr. DANIELE CAPEZZONE (Referendum Promoter): (Through Translator) We lost. We lost heavily, and the result must be analyzed carefully to understand what happened in the heart of Italian society. I fear that what prevailed was indifference or mistrust in the possibility to change things.

POGGIOLI: Many Italian analysts also attributed the result, in part, to referendum fatigue. There have been many referenda in the last few years, but the last to reach the 50 percent quorum was 10 years ago. Others say the fertility issue was too complicated. The issue divided the political world with several government and opposition leaders abstaining. Political analyst Sergio Romano acknowledges that in an atmosphere of collective insecurity, the Catholic Church's message had strong resonance.

Mr. SERGIO ROMANO (Political Analyst): There is no doubt that people are disconcerted, uncertain. They have anxieties and that sort of thing. And it is possible that in such a psychological state, they turn to the church and they're ready to listen to the church.

POGGIOLI: And in the last several weeks, the Italian Catholic Church has been very vocal. Leaflets saying `Life cannot be put to a vote' were distributed in churches. Pilgrimages were held to proclaim the sanctity of life. And from their pulpits on Sunday, when polls were open but political parties were banned from electioneering, priests continued to preach against the referendum. Political analyst Sergio Romano says the church has every right to speak out on ethical issues.

Mr. ROMANO: But when the church tells you exactly what kind of an electoral strategy Italian citizens should adopt, this is interference, in my opinion, and people who abstained, they just gave the church a victory.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican has not made any official comment on the referendum, but Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who spearheaded the boycott campaign, tried to play down the result. He said, `Victory is a mistaken term.'

Cardinal CAMILLO RUINI: (Through Translator) I did not fight to win. I didn't win. I tried only to do my duty as a bishop and listen to my conscience as a man, Christian and citizen.

POGGIOLI: Ruini's reluctance to sound triumphant could be a sign that church leaders are worried that the referendum outcome could have a backlash and trigger a wave of anti-clerical sentiment in Italy. This country has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and according to a recent survey, 62 percent of churchgoers do not follow the precepts of the church. But supporters of the referendum are worried that the Catholic Church will now target Italy's abortion law, since it clashes with the fertility statute's article recognizing embryos' legal rights. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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