Pope Enters Public Battle Over Italian Vote on Fertility Law


New York Times

May 30, 2005

ROME, May 30 - Pope Benedict XVI waded gingerly into Italian politics today, endorsing a call by Italian bishops for a boycott of a contentious referendum on medically assisted fertility.

The referendum seeks to overturn key provisions in a law passed last here last year that is the most restrictive on medically assisted fertility in Europe. The current law bans donations of sperm and eggs; defines life as beginning at conception; and allows fertility treatment only to "stable heterosexual couples" who are living together and can prove infertility.

The effort to roll back many of those provisions is shaping up as an important battleground for the Roman Catholic church, energized by a new pope with strong views on social issues. For weeks, the fight has raged in pulpits and in the press, with posters in the streets of Rome and around Italy, advertisements on television and in newspapers and pamphlets being handed out in churches in this Catholic country.

In his comments today, Benedict raised the temperature a decisive degree by backing the strategy of Italian bishops, who have encouraged Italians to shun the June 12-13 referendum in hopes of killing it and preserving the law. Any referendum that does not attract at least 50 percent turnout automatically fails.

Many Italians support the law, and the church's engagement to protect it. But others worry that the referendum marks a disturbing intrusion by the church into politics, in a way many opponents of the law say is, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, a cynical manipulation of election law.

"You are committed to illuminate the choice of Catholics and of all citizens in the imminent referendum on assisted procreation," Benedict told Italian bishops at a conference at the Vatican.

While Benedict did not address the referendum in detail, his willingness to step into the fray seemed to show that he would continue the activist stance of his predecessor, John Paul II, on issues important to the church.

Earlier, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and now in his six weeks as pope, Benedict has spoken often about the church's strong advocacy of preserving human life, particularly the unborn, and the need for the church to take a more muscular stance against secularism in Europe and the United States. Those issues are central to the referendum.

"The question is tied very much to what happened in Spain, which was seen as another moment of this challenge," said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert generally supportive of Benedict, referring to a recent bill allowing gay marriage that Spanish Catholics have loudly protested.

Earlier this month, Benedict wrote a letter to Spanish bishops saying that "the transmission of the faith and religious practices cannot remain confined to the purely private sphere."

Mr. Magister also noted Catholic rallying, both in the United States and at the Vatican, in defense of Terry Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who died in March after her husband won a long battle to detach her feeding tube.

"The fact that these battles are fought over real-life cases shows the centrality of these themes, and on these themes the church hierarchy has decided to energetically commit itself to reawaken the church," Mr. Magister said.

In Italy, the church and activist Catholics sense a good chance to win the referendum fight - saying they feel invigorated in a way that was not the case when intensive church lobbying failed to prevent divorce and abortion from becoming legal here in the 1970's and 80's.

The reasons seem to be some complex combination: the global attention and momentum generated by the papal transition; the willingness of Catholics here and elsewhere to speak out on issues like the Schiavo case; a sense that religion in general and Catholics in particular are under siege in the West and that the faithful need to take a strong stand.

"The debate has been reawakened," said Luisa Santolini, a member of the executive board of Science and Life, an umbrella organization for groups that want to keep in place Italy's new and restrictive fertility law. "What's happened now is that the Roman Catholic world is united."

While Ms. Santolini and church supporters deny it, opponents say that the church is aiming at something more fundamental: repealing entirely Italy's abortion law, which was itself the subject of a hard-fought 1981 referendum. A key section of the new fertility law defines life as beginning at conception - an idea that opponents say opens the door, by definition, to repeal of the abortion law.

"If an embryo is already a human being, then of course you cannot commit abortion," said Giovanni Sartori, a retired Columbia University professor and a political columnist in Italy. "So it's the beginning of a long fight."

At a minimum, the fight over the referendum has tied politics here into an exquisitely baroque knot. Many of the nation's top politicians are avoiding taking a firm stand, for fear of angering either or both of the many voters guided by the church and the generally secular but often disengaged public.

The nation's foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini, is an exception. He has advocated repealing parts of the law - prompting an open rebellion in his own party.

As is often the case here, the issues, strategies and processes are all mindbendingly complicated. But the starting point is the law on medically assisted fertility passed early last year, under heavy lobbying from the Vatican and Pope John Paul II.

To combat the law - which opponents say has sent a stream of couples to fertility clinics elsewhere in Europe - the Italian Radical Party collected more than a million signatures to force a referendum on repealing key sections of the law. It seeks to overturn sections that define life as beginning at conception, ban donated sperm and eggs as well as surrogate parenthood, prohibit all research involving human embryos and require that no more than three eggs may be fertilized at a time - and that they must be implanted in the uterus together.

Church officials, starting with Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome and a close aide to Benedict, are urging Italians to boycott the referendum and thus kill it by virtue of low turnout.

As a result, critics argue, the referendum will be decided less on a discussion of the issues than on a quirk in the rules of the referendum - in which the church is urging citizens not to take part in a matter of state.

Several polls indicate that Italian voters largely support repealing the sections of the law in question, but also that fewer than the required 50 percent will show up to vote.

"How can you say this is the great threat of the 21st century - it's a question of life and death - and then tell people to go to the beach?" asked Daniele Capezzone, secretary general of the Radical Party.

The church and its supporters disagree: The church, they say, has a right to try to influence laws - and to win the fight.

"Abstention is a strategy, not an escape route," said Monsignor Giuseppe Anfossi, bishop of Aosta, in northwest Italy, who has been urging people not to vote in the referendum.

But the referendum has stirred up many conflicting emotions, even among committed Catholics.

A bank employee in Milan who says he is a churchgoer estimates that he and his partner have spent 16,000 euros trying to get her pregnant after a tumor left him sterile. The man, who asked that only his first name, Paolo, be used, said they had been forced to go to Greece, spending some 3,000 euros plus expenses, because Italian law bans both the use of donated sperm and fertility treatments for unmarried couples.

While he said he supports parts of the law, he has been disturbed by what he said was excessive pressure from the church.

"I was at a confirmation Mass recently and at the end the priest urged people to abstain from the vote and outside there were people handing out pamphlets," he said. "It's very invasive, it's become very political. Even though I'm Catholic, I've become very angry with the church. I think its important to give people a choice."

The risk for the church, some experts say, is that it could appear even less relevant, for all the effort it is expending, if the referendum passes. But Mr. Magister, the Vatican expert, said the church would probably take a longer view, seeing the fight as an important stand at a vital time.

"Should they lose, it won't be a drama because they have already billed this as a battle that will take a century to fight, and it won't end here," he said. "The capital importance of the referendum is that it's a small skirmish in a battle that's continuing."