Italy votes as church and state fight over fertility

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The Independent Online

Italy went to the polls yesterday to vote in a bitterly contested referendum which has pitted the secular state against the power of the Catholic Church to determine social policy.

The referendum is to determine whether Italy continues to have the most restrictive law in Europe on assisted fertility - a law passed in February 2004 with strong church backing, which prohibits sperm donation and experiments on embryos - or whether controls will be eased to bring Italy more into line with its neighbours and EU partners.

The Catholic Church has for weeks been vigorously urging believers to boycott the referendum, stopping short of threatening excommunication but spelling out that Catholics have "a duty of obedience" to abstain from the poll. Italian politicians always look nervously over their shoulders when the Church takes a stand on an issue, and numerous national figures have declared that they will not vote, including the centre-left leader and former leader of the opposition Francesco Rutelli, and the speakers of both houses of parliament, the most important figures in the Italian state after the President and the Prime Minister.

Turnout is critical because if fewer than 50 per cent of those eligible vote, the referendum is null and void and the original law remains on the books.

Last week Pope Benedict XVI threw his weight behind the boycott call. But the Church's heavy-handed intervention in the affairs of the secular republic has also sparked widespread resentment. Writing in the daily paper L'Unita on Saturday, the prominent pundit Furio Colombo said: "The individual decision of a citizen not to vote is normal, legitimate and represents a considerable percentage in every vote. The scandal is the dramatic, public and repeated call by highly authoritative figures, both religious and secular, to boycott. It is a scandal because it is the negation of democracy and an insult to the individual's free will."

Corriere della Sera newspaper commented yesterday: "It is decades since such a violent exchange of harsh words, insults and barks has been witnessed." The newspaper quoted one woman supporter of the boycott who wrote: "Woman, show that women are capable of reasoning with their heads and not with their wombs." Referring to the ban on the use of donated sperm, which a "yes" win in the referendum would overturn, she went on: "To satisfy his instincts, a man pays an Albanian [prostitute] to use her body for his pleasure. Women pay another Albanian to satisfy their reproductive instincts ..."

The referendum has created some strange bedfellows, with the "post-Fascist" foreign minister Gianfranco Fini infuriating his overwhelmingly Catholic and conservative fellow party members by declaring that he will vote "yes", while darlings of the centre-left such as Mr Rutelli provoked consternation on the left by falling in line with the Church.

The reason for the intensity of the debate is that both sides see the cause as a last-ditch one. Liberals fear that if the referendum fails, the next initiative of the Vatican-backed "pro-lifers" will be to try to overturn Italy's relaxed abortion law, passed in tumultuous circumstances, and to the Church's consternation, in 1974. The Church on the other hand believes that if "interference" with the stuff of life is not halted now, the hubristic arrogance of science will be out of control.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who has maintained silence during the debate, was greeted with applause by fellow voters when he went to a polling station with his wife yesterday morning, although he declined to say which way he had voted. The voting continues until 3pm today and the result should be known this evening.