Italian church leaps into Italian debate on bioethics

Rome, Italy - The Roman Catholic hierarchy stepped up its opposition to a popular referendum aimed at partly repealing and liberalizing the country's tough laws on assisted procreation.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the president of the Italian bishop's conference, urged Catholics to abstain from voting in the referendum June 12 and 13, which will be null and void unless at least 50 percent of the electorate takes part in it.

Several other members of the hierarchy supported Ruini, saying that anyone who failed to heed the injuction to abstain from voting could not be considered a real Catholic.

Pope Benedict XVI became indirectly involved in the debate when he told people attending his weekly general audience to "enlist in the construction of a society based on Christian values."

The latest blast from the hierarchy, almost exactly one month before the referendum takes place, followed comments by Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini that he would fulfil his duty as a citizen and vote to repeal the legislation, which he said was far from perfect in its present restrictive form.

Italy's Constitutional Court cleared the way for a referendum law after opponents collected more than four million signatures in a petition urging its repeal.

Promoters of a "yes" vote want to drop a clause limiting fertility treatment to "stable heterosexual couples" who live together, are of childbearing age and are shown to be clinically infertile.

They also want to lift the prohibition on research using human embryos, embryo freezing, and surrogacy.

Finally, they are seeking to end a legal stipulation that only three eggs can be fertilized at any one time and that they must be transferred to the uterus simultaneously, increasing the likelihood of multiple births.

Many prominent Italian scientists have called on people to vote "yes" in the referendum, warning that the law leaves Italy trailing behind other countries on bioethical issues.

Although Fini was expressing a personal view, his position has "provoked an earthquake in his party, the National Alliance" and triggered the anger of the Church, the daily Corriere della Sera said.

"The decision of Giancarlo Fini is a personal mistake and marks a change in the cultural, ethical and political position of the National Alliance, which is a national and Catholic party," said one of its leaders, Gustavo Selva, chairman of the foreign affairs commission in the Chamber of deputies.

Another National Alliance deputy, Carlo Giovanardi, minister in charge of relations with parliament, said a victory for the yes vote in the referendum would send Italy down the same road as Spain, which is battling the Church over a number of issues, including gay marriages.

A poll published by the daily La Stampa Wednesday showed Italians are still deeply divided over the referendum, with 33 percent saying they would vote for it and 10 percent against.

But 27 percent said they would abstain and 30 percent said they were still undecided.