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Ninemsn (Australia) - March 3, 2008 Abortion, legalised in predominantly Roman Catholic Italy 30 years ago, has unexpectedly become a hot topic ahead of April elections. After the defection of a small centrist Catholic party, the UDEUR, brought down the centre-left government of Romano Prodi in January, both left and right are battling for the centre, which is dominated by Catholics with roots in the Christian Democratic party. Giuliano Ferrara, an ally of right-wing flagbearer Silvio Berlusconi, plans to run a single-issue campaign with the slogan "Abortion, No Thanks." Although Ferrara may not muster the necessary signatures to be able to run in the April 13-14 polls, his is among several voices that have moved abortion to the front burner. Berlusconi himself caused a stir last month when he was quoted as saying that "recognition of the right to life from its conception to natural death could be a principle of the UN, as it was for the moratorium on the death penalty after a long and hard debate." The media tycoon, tipped to lead his new People of Freedom Party to victory in April, later back-pedaled, saying abortion should not be an election issue. "Just a few years ago, no one, aside from the Church, dared to publicly challenge the right to abortion," said gynaecologist Paola Piattella, pointing to a sharp drop in voluntary terminations as a factor in stifling critics. The some 130,000 abortions performed in Italy in 2006 represented a 45 percent decline from 1982, according to official figures. Meanwhile the Catholic Church weighs in frequently on social issues in Italy. Italian Catholic Church leader Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco was quick to praise Berlusconi's call for an abortion moratorium, while left-wing figure Emma Bonino dismissed it as a "political circus (with the) single goal of waging an ideological campaign to sow division, particularly in the centre-left." Gynaecologist Vincenzo Spinelli said "pressure is heavier than usual" on the abortion issue. Two weeks ago police responding to an anonymous call raided the Naples hospital room of a woman who had an abortion for medical reasons to check whether the legal limit of 24 weeks had not been exceeded. The hospital said the 39-year-old woman was 21 weeks pregnant at the time of the abortion and chose to go through with the procedure after learning that the foetus had a chromosonal abnormality. The termination was within the limit but the raid by the police -- who seized the foetus -- shocked Italians and prompted several thousand women to take to the streets in protest. "All this has created an unpleasant climate that will increase the number of conscientious objectors," Spinelli said. Italy's "Law 194" legalising abortion in 1978 gave medical staff the right to refuse to perform terminations on conscientious grounds. According to official figures, 60 percent of Italy's gynaecologists have availed themselves of this option. The raid at the Naples hospital "would have been unthinkable not long ago," added Spinelli, who belongs to the Italian Association for Demographic Education, which advocates "free and responsible procreation." Anti-abortion advocates have called for a decrease in the 24-month timeframe for health-related abortions due to medical progress over the last 30 years. At the hospital on the outskirts of Rome where Spinelli works, five of the seven gynaecologists are conscientious objectors. Some opt out "for convenience -- doing abortions is not very gratifying -- or to be well viewed by their boss," Spinelli said.

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