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Italy's referendum on whether to ease one of the most restrictive fertility treatment laws in Europe is likely to fail as the Roman Catholic Church and politicians ranging from left to right urge citizens not to vote. The referendum seeks to amend a one-year-old law that bans embryonic stem cell research, restricts the use of surrogate mothers and sperm donors and limits the number of embryos that can be used in pregnancy attempts. Since referendums are only binding if half of all registered voters turn out, opponents of the referendum are urging abstention in the June 12-13 vote. "I don't think we will reach a quorum,'' said Filomena Gallo, head of Amica Cicogna Onlus, a women's right group and sponsor of the referendum. "The fact politicians are encouraging people not to exercise their right to vote is horrifying.'' The vote is one of the first referendums regarding the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research. U.S. President George W. Bush has threatened to veto a bill that would expand public funding for the research. Italy's law sets a limit of three embryos that can be used for artificial insemination, forcing multiple treatments if they don't develop. Polls indicate that the majority of people who plan to vote support changing the law, though the success of the abstention campaign means the referendum probably will fail. About 40 percent of voters will cast ballots, while 30 percent were undecided, according to a poll by Demos-Eurisko published on May 24. The margin of error was 3 percent. Foreign Treatment Italy called the referendum after women's rights groups, backers of stem cell research and political parties including the Radical Party gathered enough signatures to win a vote. Backers of the referendum say the current law is so restrictive it forces many women to travel abroad for fertility treatments, while opponents praise the law for protecting the unborn and reining in the private fertility industry. In a country where the low birth rate limits opportunities for adoption and where the government offers cash incentives for families to have children, support and opposition to the current law has cut across political lines. Franco Rutelli, the head of the leftist Daisy party urged voters to follow his example and abstain, while his wife and most other partners in the opposition Olive Tree coalition led by Romano Prodi have advocated voting for the changes. Rutelli said the changes may pave the way for people to choose the sex or features of their children. "Irresponsible" Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini plans to vote to change the law. He said in an interview in Corriere della Sera on June 8 that advocating abstention would make Italians" "irresponsible'' when it comes to voting. The remarks prompted criticism from Fini's allies in Prime Minister Berlusconi's government and praise from Prodi's forces. Giovanni Alemanno, Italy's Minister of Agriculture and a leader of Fini's National Alliance party, defended abstaining as the best way to protect the law, in a statement responding to Fini's remarks. "It's obvious that whoever votes `no' on any of the items of this referendum risks allowing the minority that will vote `si' to modify this law,'' Alemanno said. Under the current law embryos can't be stored for future pregnancy attempts and all three eggs permitted must be implanted at the same time, reducing the changes for one to develop. Faced with those restrictions and the cost of multiple procedures, 25 percent of Italian patients travel to clinics abroad, according to a study by fertility specialist Claudio Giorlandino, chairman of the Italian Society of Prenatal Diagnosis and Maternal and Fetal Medicine Benedict Boycott "This law is against woman and economically favors doctors,'' said Giorlandino, who is campaigning for the voters to scrap the law in the referendum. The debate on the referendum led Pope Benedict XVI to make his first incursion into Italian politics. On May 30 he endorsed a call from the congregation of Italian bishops for voters to abstain. In a country where 97 percent of the population is Catholic, the pope's stance is influential, critics of the abstention campaign say. "By telling people not to vote, the Church is very conscious about what it's doing, says Emma Bonino, a member of the Radical Party that helped organize the amendment. ``It's like imams preaching politics in a mosque,'' she says. ``I have no doubt this is the first step toward banning abortion.'' Defining Life The referendum is also seeking to change the language in the law that defines life as beginning at conception. Bonino says leaving the law in tact may prompt a future challenge to the abortion law on the grounds that the procedure at any stage of pregnancy would be murder. Part of the opposition to changing the law stems from concern about the growing private fertility industry. The original procreation law was partly inspired by the case of a 62- year-old Sicilian woman who became pregnant with twins after undergoing fertility treatment. She eventually lost the babies. "I hope that fertility treatment will only be conducted in state clinics and paid for by national health insurance, as is the case with abortion,'' said Paola Binetti, a neuro- psychiatrist and president of Science & Life, an organization advocating an abstention in the vote.

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