Vatican victorious after boycott over fertility referendum

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The Independent Online

A generation after Italy embraced the permissive society and rebuffed the Catholic Church by endorsing divorce and then abortion, the Vatican got its own back yesterday. It sent an attempt to liberalise the law on IVF treatment to a humiliating failure.

It is being called the great revenge. The referendum had been called to reform a new law, the toughest in Europe, which regulates all aspects of assisted fertility. But under the slogan "Life cannot be put to a vote - don't vote", the Church campaigned vigorously for the referendum to be boycotted.

The campaign was a resounding success: when polling stations closed yesterday afternoon, barely one-quarter of those eligible had voted, half the number required to make the referendum legally valid.

"The day after an election, it's rare to find politicians who say, 'we lost,'" said Daniele Capezzone, secretary of the libertarian Radical Party which had been the driving force behind the winning campaigns on abortion and divorce as well as this one. "But we say, simply and clearly, 'we've lost, and we've lost very heavily.' This is a vote which will remain in history for decades, with a significance far beyond the political news of the day. That's why we need to prepare ourselves for a critical examination, to understand what has really happened in the depths of Italian society."

Commentators wrestled with the paradox that, despite emptier churches and an ever weaker regard for the declarations of the Church on issues such as contraception and abortion, its influence appears once again to be on the rise.

"One would never have believed such a revenge possible while the world was becoming deChristian- ised," said Federico Geremicca in La Stampa newspaper. "But here it is. Served on a platter by the Radical Party."

The Deputy Prime Minister, Gianfranco Fini, accused the abstentionist camp of encouraging voters to ignore their civic duties.

Until a couple of years ago, Italy was known as the Wild West for IVF, with the Rome celebrity researcher and scientist Severino Antinori helping a woman of 62 to become a mother.

Then, last year, the tough new law was passed, substantially endorsed by the Vatican, banning research on embryos, which were given the same rights as a human being; banning the freezing of embryos, and the creation of more than three embryos in any fertilisation attempt; and banning stem-cell research on the 30,000 embryos that were created and frozen before the law came into force.

The law also banned the use of donor sperm and eggs. Voters were yesterday invited to decide on the possible repeal of each of these four, highly technical aspects of the law.

Given the complexity of the issues, and the Church's demand that the faithful boycott the referendum, the defeat was not altogether surprising, though its scale left would-be reformers gasping for breath.

It also left some asking whether the referendum, which has led Italy to embrace divorce and abortion and reject nuclear power, has outlived its usefulness: none of the 20 issues put to referendum since 1997 has attracted a quorum. "The referendum is a broken tool," said Federico Geremicca. "Worse, it's a dangerous tool, not only for those who use it, but also for the cause in which it is deployed."