ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Same-sex marriage or civil unions are legal throughout Western Europe, including many traditionally Catholic countries. The only holdout is Italy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that tomorrow the Italian Senate will begin debating a bill that would legalize civil unions.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Tens of thousands of Italians took to the streets last weekend in some 100 cities, demanding legalization of civil unions, including those of gay and lesbian couples. They shouted, Italy, it's time to wake up.
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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.
POGGIOLI: The rallies were organized by LGBT activists and their supporters, impatient as they've watched their European neighbors legalize same-sex marriage or civil unions. At the Rome rally, we run into Carlo Terriaca, who has a gay son. After retiring from his job as a bank manager, he became president of an association of parents of LGBT children.
CARLO TERRIACA: I think that during the last 10 years, Italian society has been deeply changing, particularly the new generations. You find quite a different feeling about this.
POGGIOLI: One of those young people is 22-year-old Alessandro Piavani. He sees the civil unions bill has a crucial human rights issue for the entire society.
ALESSANDRO PIAVANI: And I think it's really important because it's a sign of modernity and a pace forward in the right direction to rights for all, not just for the bisexual, homosexual people, but for all.
POGGIOLI: Polls show large numbers of Italians approves granting homosexual couples inheritance and pension rights, as well as the right to make medical decisions for a partner who is hospitalized. There's much more division over the provision of the bill that would allow adoption of the gay partner's biological children. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is a strong supporter of the bill, but there's division also within his own government. Maurizio Sacconi is a member of a small coalition party.
MAURIZIO SACCONI: (Through interpreter) We say no to marriages by whatever name and no to stepchild adoption.
POGGIOLI: Opponents insist that stepchild adoption will encourage gay couples to go abroad and turn to surrogate mothers, a practice banned in Italy. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco is the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, which has traditionally made itself heard in Italian politics. He waded into the debate this week, saying it's up to laypeople to inscribe divine law into Earthly life.
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ANGELO BAGNASCO: (Through interpreter) The welfare of children must prevail over everything. Children are not a right. They are not something that can be produced. They have a right to security and stability.
POGGIOLI: But LGBT activists say that surrogacy has nothing to do with the civil unions bill. Marilena Grassadonia, president of the Rainbow Families Association, says it's time to face facts.
MARILENA GRASSADONIA: (Through interpreter) Our children are citizens who must be safeguarded. The way they came into this world is not important. I have duties toward my three children, whether I'm their biological mother or their other mother.
POGGIOLI: Ivan Scalfarotto is undersecretary for relations with Parliament. He's also the first openly gay member in government. He believes that opposition to the bill is based on an unwillingness to accept the concept of equality.
IVAN SCALFAROTTO: And the underlying text is a gay or lesbian couple is worth less than a straight couple, so they're not equal.
POGGIOLI: Opponents of the bill are staging a family day rally Saturday at Rome's ancient Circus Maximus, the biggest arena in the city. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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