Vatican View Is Victorious in Fertility Vote by Italians

By IAN FISHER

New York Times

June 14, 2005

ROME, June 13 - A law that imposes strict rules on assisted fertility will remain on the books, after the failure today of a hard-fought referendum that rubbed into one of Italy's sorest spots: the relationship between church and state.

The fight leading up to two days of voting Sunday and Monday mobilized the nation's political and religious establishments like few others, 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 eligible Italians cast their votes, meaning that the referendum automatically failed in its attempt to repeal four crucial sections of a restrictive fertility law passed here last year. For the referendum to be valid, 50 percent of eligible voters had to participate.

The results would seem 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 1970's and 1980's 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 to Pope Benedict. "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 church teachings on values: The fertility law, passed here under 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, resident of the Italian bishops' conference, told reporters, according to Reuters. Cardinal Ruini, a top Vatican official and close aide to Benedict, has 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 walls between church and state. And 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 early 1980's, told reporters. "It is not secular and it's very worrying."

But some analysts cautioned about reading too much into the results, noting that Italy is a particular nation, where church and state are entwined like nowhere else; that a battle over abortion would be much more difficult; that a similar fight seemed unlikely to gain ground elsewhere in Europe.

Renato Mannheimer, a pollster at the University of Milan, noted that other referendums in Italy in recent years have also attracted only about 25 percent of voters, calling into question how many people actually stayed away because church leaders 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 sperms donated from other people.

Opponents of the law contend that it has opened a flood of infertile couples seeking treatment at clinics, of varying quality and oversight, outside of Italy.

In recent weeks, the referendum was fought with full force, with both sides painting the worst in the other: Some supporters of the existing law accused opponents of seeking like the Nazis to create a race of perfect humans, because the referendum would have allowed a return to in-vitro screening for genetic defects.

Opponents of the existing law accused the Vatican of invading Italians' private lives directly, and called it an attack on women's rights in particular.

They also noted a contradiction between the fertility law and the nation's abortion law that they said opened the door to repealing the right to abortion in Italy: The fertility law grants full rights to a fertilized egg, yet the abortion law allows for a pregnancy to be terminated.

But even amid the polarization, there were voices on both sides that said that problems in the law could possibly be worked out in Parliament, rather than in an emotional referendum and expensive advertising campaign.

It is unclear whether that is still possible after the bitterness of the last weeks, but supporters of the referendum said they were not yet giving up the fight to change the law.

"At least 10 million people voted in favor," Stefania Prestigiacomo, the nation's equal rights minister, who favored the referendum, told reporters. "They were probably the informed ones. We wont give up. We'll continue our battle. Ours was an important battle of conscience that I consider just."