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CHURCH BOOSTED AFTER SCUTTLING ITALIAN VOTE

The Roman Catholic Church emerged yesterday as the real winner and a force in Italian politics after its boycott call helped defeat a referendum on easing Italy’s fertility and bioethics law. “The referendum proved the Italian Church was right ... and confirms that Catholicism cannot be put on the sidelines of public life,” commented the archbishop of Lecce, Cosmo Francesco Ruppi, in Italy’s main Catholic daily Avvenire. “We won an extraordinary battle,” said Cardinal Ersilio Tonini of the Church’s campaign, which was backed by newly elected Pope Benedict XVI. Although many analysts pointed also to voter apathy to explain the mere 25% turnout in the two-day referendum, many Italians chose not to vote on moral grounds. According to a survey published yesterday in the daily Corriere della Sera, some 35% of Italians abstained on moral grounds, enough to invalidate the Sunday and Monday vote, which required a turnout of more than 50% for it to be valid. Voter apathy counted for another 39% of Italians who choose to stay home, according to the survey of 1,600 people. The margin of error was 2.5%. Supporters of change to Italy’s stringent law on medically assisted procreation denounced the Church’s appeal, accusing cardinals of overstepping their role. “There are three victims today: secularism, the independence of political parties and the institution of the referendum,” said former EU commissioner Emma Bonino, who championed the change. “The result of this referendum is not only a defeat, it is also the collapse of secular Italy,” wrote Ezio Mauro in his front-page editorial in the daily La Repubblica. With the Vatican located in the heart of Rome, the Church’s role in Italy has always been a sensitive subject. Priests led fierce battles against the liberalisation of abortion and divorce in the 1970s, while questions of religious education were not settled until the Italian state and the Vatican signed an agreement regulating their relations in 1984. Monday’s victory through abstention “brought back to the surface the strength of the Church in Italy”, sociologist Franco Garelli told AFP, explaining that the Church remains an important reference point for Italians, who are predominantly Roman Catholic though less and less practising. Critics of the Church said they were concerned that prelates, boosted by Monday’s victory, will try to press for a review of Italy’s abortion law. Italy’s top cardinal, Camillo Riuni, said the Church had no such intention, although several centre-right lawmakers said on Monday that the legislation could be reviewed. Ruini was identified by the press as the great winner of the vote, one priest calling the top cardinal “the greatest politician the Church has had in 20 years”. Regarding the fertility law, Ruini said that the Church was willing to see “improvements” but not a “radical worsening” of the norm. The current law bars research on embryos, considers them full human beings, bans the use of donor eggs and sperm, and allows access to medically assisted procreation techniques only to sterile couples. It also allows only three embryos to be created, which must be implanted at the same time and without checking whether they carry hereditary diseases. Supporters of change say these restrictions endanger women’s health and threaten to leave Italy in the dark ages of medical research, while opponents argue that the referendum would have gone too far in loosening the practices, thus violating the Church’s position on the sanctity of life from conception.





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