Vatican scores victory in Italy referendum

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

ROME -- In a victory for the Vatican, Italian voters shunned a referendum that would have eliminated bans on egg and sperm donation, freezing embryos and other widely used methods by couples wanting to have children.

Pope Benedict XVI had endorsed a call by Italian bishops for a boycott of the vote, held Sunday and Monday. The four ballot measures drew 25.9 percent of eligible voters, roughly half the required turnout of 50 percent plus one for the results to be binding on Parliament.

The vote was seen as a test of the Vatican's influence in a country that is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic but has strayed from church doctrine, notably by approving divorce and abortion in referendums decades ago.

The referendums would have ended a limit on the number of embryos that can be created at one time and lifted bans on freezing them for future implantation or screening them for defects. In addition, a provision that gives embryos the same legal rights as those who are born would have been eliminated.

The Holy See's press office said it had no comment.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Italian bishops conference leader who championed the boycott appeal, dismissed talk that the Catholic church was the victor.

"What really won was the moral conscience of our people and the future of man himself," Ruini said in an interview on private Canale 5's evening news.

Some Italians were taken aback by the poor turnout.

"I didn't expect such a low turnout," said Domenico Costantino, 29, a fund raiser in Rome for the aid group Save the Children. He said the intervention of the church and political parties influenced people's choices.

"I am not disappointed that the referendums failed," said Carmen Maulicino, a shop assistant in Rome. "The cycle of life is a natural thing and we should not interfere by manipulation."

In random interviews, many Italians denounced the church campaign as invasive.

"We lost, and we lost heavily," said Daniele Capezzone, a leader of the Radical Party, which battled to overturn the law. Commenting on the church's campaign, Capezzone worried that churchmen would now wage war on laws permitting divorce and abortion.

Italians defied Vatican teaching in a 1974 referendum that upheld divorce and again in 1981, in a vote that upheld Italy's liberal abortion law.

But Ruini denied the abortion law was the next target, calling such concern "invented."

Many doctors and fertility patients said the law hurts chances for success of in-vitro methods.

In Italy, no more than three embryos can be created and all of them must be implanted at the same time.

Until the law, many more embryos were created to improve chances some would successfully develop in the womb. Extra embryos were frozen to spare women heavy doses of hormones for future attempts at pregnancy.

The law also forbids the use of eggs or sperm from outside a stable, heterosexual couple. It also bans pre-implantation screening of embryos for disease-causing genes.

Critics of the law argued that affluent couples go to countries with more liberal assisted fertility laws, while those who can't afford that struggle with the law's limits.

Before the legislation, Italy was a pioneer in pregnancy for post-menopausal women in their late 50s and early 60s, who used donor eggs to conceive.

Conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi never took a stand or even said if he intended to vote.

"I kept silent to not divide the country on a problem of conscience, and I don't want to make comments not even now, after the voters have shown yet again that they know how to judge in an independent way," Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi's main coalition leader, Deputy Premier Gianfranco Fini, stunned fellow conservatives by announcing he was voting yes on all measures except the one to end the ban on egg and sperm donation. On Monday night, Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno announced he had quit as vice-president of Fini's National Alliance right-wing party to protest Fini's vote.

The politician Berlusconi defeated for the premiership in 2001, former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli, sided with pro-Catholic centrists in joining the boycott.

Associated Press reporter Marta Falconi contributed to this report.

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