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ITALIAN FERTILITY REFERENDUM INVALIDATED

by Richard Owen Liberals today said they feared a "victorious Vatican" would now seek to reverse reforms on abortion and divorce in Italy following the defeat of a referendum designed to liberalise restrictive Italian laws on assisted fertility. Despite an impassioned national debate, low voter turnout invalidated the balloting in a referendum which would have overturned a ban on donation of eggs and sperm. Turnout must be more than 50 per cent of the electorate for the vote in a referendum to be valid. In two days of balloting, only 25.9 percent of voters in Italy had cast ballots, according to complete returns released by the Interior Ministry. The defeated campaigners accused the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI of "unwarranted interference in Italian affairs". But the result underlined the extent to which Catholic culture still underpins Italian society, a message which not be lost on politicians of both Right and Left in the run up to the next election, due by May next year. Marco Pannella, the leader of the Radical Party, said the Vatican had conducted a "dirty campaign" to ensure that enough Italians abstained to render the referendum invalid. Il Messaggero, the Rome daily, said that "no parish priest overtly campaigned in sermons on Sunday - but they did not need to. Italy is still a Catholic country." Pope Benedict had publicly endorsed a campaign by Italian Catholic bishops for a boycott, arguing that a Yes vote would pose "a threat to life and the family". The campaign was led by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Vicar of Rome and a close ally of the Pope, under the slogan "Life cannot be put to the vote." Since his election Benedict has reiterated the uncompromising views on issues such as contraception and abortion he held when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "The Pope’s intervention was decisive" said Andrea Tornielli, a writer on Vatican affairs. Today, Cardinal Ruini urged Catholics to avoid "triumphalism", and Vatican officials pointed out that many voters had stayed away from the polling booths simply because they had headed for the beach at the start of the school summer holidays. But Corriere della Sera said the timing was itself part of a deliberate strategy by the conservative coalition of Silvio Berlusconi, which includes Christian Democrats. The referendum proposals, which would also have overturned a ban on embryo research introduced last year, were backed by liberal-minded scientists and by showbusiness figures such as the actress Monica Bellucci, who demanded: "What do politicians and priests know about my ovaries?" The debate cut across party lines, with rightwing figures such as Gianfranco Fini, the Foreign Minister, defying the party line to support a Yes vote and Francesco Rutelli, a former mayor of Rome and a leader of the Centre Left, dismaying the liberal camp by abstaining. Massimo Cacciari, the mayor of Venice and a noted left- ing philosopher, said many people had abstained simply because the four part referendum question was "too complex". But he conceded that Italy’s "liberal secular culture" had clearly lost ground since 1974, when the pro-divorce referendum was passed by nearly 60 per cent, and 1981, when the pro-abortion vote was passed by more than 88 per cent. Emma Bonino, a former EU Commissioner and a Radical Party leader, suggested the "moral standing" of the Pope had increased because of the impact of the suffering and death of John Paul II. "Many people feel the Pope is the last true leader on the world stage. But this should not allow him to condition a country’s social policy" she said. Stefania Prestigiacomo, the Minister for Equal Opportunities and a member of Signor Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, who repeatedly urged women to vote Yes, said she was clearly in a minority on the Right, which had shown itself to be "fundamentalist and intolerant. Our coalition is called the House of Liberty - but where is the liberty? The Church has never intervened in such an overwhelming and determined way". Signora Prestigiacomo said she feared the abortion law would now be reversed, since "if a 48 hour old embryo is a person, then abortion is murder". "This is a catastrophe, worse than we imagined" said Nicola Piepoli, another leading Yes campaigner. "We were buried beneath an avalanche of revived Christian Democracy". The outcome strengthens the position of Pierferdinando Casini, Speaker of the Lower House and a Christian Democrat, who had assured voters they would "not be second class citizens" if they abstained. Signor Berlusconi was recently quoted as saying Signor Casini was the front runner to succeed him as Centre Right leader, though he later said the field was "wide open". Until the current law took effect, Italy had a reputation as the unregulated "Wild West" of assisted fertility, with post-menopausal women giving birth thanks to hormone treatment and egg donation. The current law limits the number of embryos that can be created to three, forbids sperm or egg donation from outside the couple and prohibits scientific research using embryos. It also gives embryos full legal rights and prevents diagnosis for genetic disorders before they are transferred to the uterus, even though women can then abort a foetus with disorders. The number of infertile couples seeking help abroad has tripled since the law was approved.





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