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Initial turnout was low in Italy's vote on relaxing a stringent fertility and bioethics law, raising the prospect that a Roman Catholic Church appeal to boycott the two-day referendum will succeed in scuttling the poll. The vote is seen as a first test for newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI, who backed a call by Italian cardinals for predominantly Roman Catholic Italians to abstain from voting on moral grounds. The appeal appeared to have its effect, with only 4.6 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots by midday Sunday, in a poll in which turnout is essential since more than 50 percent must vote for the result to be binding. Among the early voters was Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and opposition leader Romano Prodi. However, some ordinary Italians told AFP they would not vote on moral grounds. "I am not voting because of the Church's appeal and I think many people will follow it," said Roman waiter Maurizio di Carlo, as he took a cigarette break from his busy Sunday afternoon shift. "It's immoral," said Mario Bitonte, a 29-year-old from the Adriatic port city of Brindisi. "You can't have a referendum on life." Others said they would not vote because the questions were too complicated. "I don't feel competent enough to vote on such a complex matter," said Giuliana Archieri, a 74-year-old housewife. Experts say that at least 35 percent of the electorate must vote by Sunday evening for the quorum to be considered attainable by the close of voting on Monday at 3:00 pm (1500 GMT). Still, supporters of change were hopeful that the quorum would be reached -- no easy feat considering that all five referendums in the past decade have failed to gather enough votes to be valid. "We musn't give up," insisted former EU humanitarian commissioner Emma Bonino, whose Radical Party was a prime backer of the poll. "I am convinced that a good result can emerge despite the cowardice and indifference of part of the political class." Some voters, however, said the Church's appeal only made them more determined to vote. "I can't accept that laws be dictated by the Vatican," said Elsa Giuliani, who took her 83-year-old mother along with her to vote. Even some practicing Catholics said they were upset by the Church's campaign. "I don't mind that they take a position on the matter, it's the pressure that disturbs me," said Benedetto, a retired Roman, heading to Sunday mass after casting his ballot. Italy is deeply divided over the referendum, which asks Italians to authorize medical research on embryos, scrap a reference to the embryo as a full human being and give people with hereditary diseases access to medically-assisted procreation, currently permitted only to sterile couples. The referendum will also ask whether to abolish current restrictions which only allow couples to create three embryos that must all be implanted at the same time, and without checking whether they carry genetic diseases. Opponents say the proposed changes go against what the pope has called the "inviolability of human life from conception," while supporters say the current law puts women's health in danger, risks leaving Italy in the dark ages of medical research, and could lead to a recriminalization of abortion. Lawmakers backing change have said that if the referendum fails, they will try to liberalize the law in parliament. The referendum has cut also through political parties and coalitions. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, holidaying Sunday in Sardinia, has refused to say whether he will vote, while his deputy, Gianfranco Fini, has accused the absentionist camp of pushing voters to forego their civic duties. Berlusconi's center-right government passed the law last year to end to Italy's reputation as a bioethics "Wild West," where, for example, an Italian embryologist helped several women aged over 60 to become mothers. Women's groups and lawmakers supporting the change gathered four million signatures to back a court action calling for the law to be modified by referendum.

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