Italy keeps tough law on assisted fertility

Ian Fisher
The New York Times

ROME: A law that imposes strict rules on assisted fertility will remain on the books after the failure of a hard-fought referendum that rubbed one of Italy's sorest spots: the relationship between church and state.

The fight leading up to two days of voting on Sunday and Monday mobilized the nation's political and religious establishments as few others have, as the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church including the new pope, Benedict XVI urged Italians to boycott the referendum.

In the end, the result was not even close: Only 26 percent of as many as 50 million eligible Italians cast their votes, meaning that the referendum automatically failed, with the votes uncounted, in its attempt to repeal four crucial sections of a restrictive fertility law passed last year. For the referendum to be valid, a majority of eligible voters would have had to have taken part.

The results would seem to represent an immediate victory for the church and for the young papacy of Benedict in a Europe where church influence has declined significantly in recent decades. Similar referendums in Italy on divorce and abortion in the 1970s and 1980s passed overwhelmingly despite church opposition, and Italians now seem likely to debate whether apathy or a reverse in secularism in the home of the Roman Catholic Church defeated this referendum.

"The results of today mean that Italy is maybe more similar to Texas than to Massachusetts," said Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's culture minister and a friend of Pope Benedict's. "Italians want a democracy with values that values human life and that is why they rejected this referendum."

For the church, the results seemed especially important, since the referendum concerned issues central to its teachings on values. The fertility law, passed with heavy church lobbying last year, defines life as beginning at conception and bans most experimentation on human embryos.

"I'm struck by the maturity of the Italian people," Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops' conference, told reporters, according to Reuters. Ruini, a top Vatican official and close aide to Benedict, regularly urged Italians to abstain from the referendum.

Conceding a heavy defeat, the political forces that supported the referendum painted the results as a blow to the wall between church and state. They warned that the church would next set its sights on Italy's abortion law.

"There is a problem of the climate, of the atmosphere in this country," Emma Bonino, a leader of the Radical Party who spearheaded the fight for legalized abortion in the 1980s, told reporters. "It is not secular, and it's very worrying." But some experts cautioned against reading too much into the results, noting that Italy is a particular nation where church and state are entwined like nowhere else.

Renato Mannheimer, a pollster at the University of Milan, noted that other referendums in Italy in recent years had also attracted only about 25 percent of voters, calling into question how many people stayed away because church leaders had urged Italians to abstain. Italians, he said, are growing more and more apathetic.

"This is a victory for the church, but Italian politicians should not think it is only the church, because of this apathy," he said. He added that the issues were "too complicated," also causing many people to stay home.

The referendum sought to overturn four sections of law: one that granted the same rights to an embryo as to a child; one that banned most experimentation on fetuses; one that allowed couples to create no more than three embryos, all of which must be implanted at one time without genetic testing; and one that banned couples from using eggs or sperm donated by other people.