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Barbara McMahon in Rome
Efforts to overturn laws on fertility treatment in Italy failed yesterday because of a dramatically low turnout in a two-day referendum, a victory for the Vatican, which had called for a boycott of the campaign.
Just under 26% of eligible voters cast ballots in the poll, which ended yesterday, according to the interior ministry, a number far short of the quorum of more than 50% needed to change the law.
The low turnout in the referendum, which has been one of the most passionately debated subjects in Italy for months, took everyone by surprise. Campaigners for the yes vote were stung by the scale of the defeat and even the Roman Catholic church, which had called for its followers to abstain from voting, had not expected such a low number of ballots. Political observers said voter apathy and confusion about the complicated issues involved in the four-part referendum may also have played a part.
"Certainly the referendum was lost by a margin that I would not have expected," said Emma Bonino, a former EU commissioner and one of the main proponents of the referendum. "Today, we have three victims: the secularism of the state, political authority and the institution of the referendum."
"The Italian people who know how to defend life have won," countered Maria Burani Procaccini, a politician from the centre right, thanking the church for "acting with conviction and force".
The law, which now remains in force, stops egg and sperm donation, bans the screening of embryos for hereditary diseases and limits the number of embryos created in each treatment to three, all of which have to be implanted at the same time. Critics say the legislation is the most restrictive in Europe and that many childless couples are forced to seek treatment abroad.
An analysis of the people who did vote showed that between 75% and 88% voted yes on the four sections of the referendum. Turnout was highest in the north and in the big cities such as Rome and Milan.
The debate has been the most highly charged in Italy since divorce and abortion were legalised in the 1970s - laws that the church also tried to have overturned with national referendums.
The issue has split doctors, medical researchers, politicians, intellectuals and religious leaders, with Italians being bombarded with emotional publicity campaigns on both sides of the argument.
The Catholic church waged a prolonged campaign to maintain the current restrictions on assisted procreation. Italian bishops, backed by Pope Benedict, had told followers: "Life cannot be put to a vote. Don't vote." The message was reinforced by priests in 26,000 parishes across Italy.
The yes campaign waged an equally strong fight, pulling in celebrities such as the actress Monica Bellucci, who played Mary Magdalene in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, who asked: "What do priests and politicians know about my ovaries?" They also called on eminent figures such as Rita Levi Montalcini, a Nobel prizewinner for medicine, and other respected legal and medical personalities.
There are now questions about the future of 30,000 embryos frozen in Italy before the current laws came into force in 2004. It is likely they will be destroyed or stored until they can no longer be used.
Many people also believe that the law legalising abortion in Italy will now come under pressure, since it is at odds with provisions of the legislation that recognises the legal rights of embryos.
"The inconsistencies between the two laws on reproduction and on abortion are enormous. I expect in the short to medium term someone will take the initiative," said equal opportunities minister Stefania Prestigiacomo, who had been campaigning in favour of a change in the law. She said she was disappointed at the result of the referendum.
Italy frequently uses referendums to decide issues of national importance, but not one has reached the required 50% quorum since 1995.

Martedì, 14 June, 2005
The Guardian
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