Church-backed boycott call scuttles Italian fertility vote

Rome, Italy - A boycott call spearheaded by the powerful Roman Catholic Church trounced an attempt to relax Italy's stringent fertility and bioethics law, with the turnout reaching barely half of the 50 percent needed for the vote to be valid.

The interior ministry announced that only 25.9 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot before polls closed at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) Monday, in a resounding defeat for supporters of change.

Victorious was the powerful Roman Catholic Church whose cardinals, backed by newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI, urged voters to boycott the two-day referendum on moral grounds.

"It is a result beyond expectations ... A result that primarily shows the wisdom of the Italian people," top Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who led the Church's campaign, said Monday.

While the Vatican remained silent, Father Gianni Baget Bozzo, a priest linked to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said he was preparing a "Te Deum" hymn of thanksgiving.

Although analysts said voter apathy was also a factor in the low turnout, most agreed that the Church's appeal had succeeded in convincing many Italians -- predominantly Roman Catholic although less and less practicing ones -- to stay home.

"If the Church had not entered the debate with all its weight, I'm not saying the necessary (50 percent) turnout would have been reached, but it may have come close," said Franco Garelli, sociology professor specialized in religious issues.

According to a survey reported by Sky Italia television, 65 percent of non-voters abstained on moral grounds while 35 percent did not vote out of apathy. The survey interviewed 500 people.

Infuriated and embittered, supporters of change accused the Church of outstepping its sphere.

Margherita Boniver, junior minister of the center-right government who supported an easing of the law, denounced a "Church diktat."

"There are three victims today: secularism, the independence of political parties and the institution of the referendum," said former EU commissioner Emma Bonino, who championed the change.

Voter apathy in referendums is high in Italy: All of the five referendums held in the past decade were invalidated due to low turnout.

Of those voting, a vast majority voted to change the law, with some 80 percent backing the reforms, according to partial interior ministry figures.

The political fallout was quick to follow, with Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini's leadership of the rightwing National Alliance (AN) called into question after two of his top allies resigned from the party's leadership committee Monday.

Fini shocked many in his party when he announced that he would vote and chastized the abstentionist call.

Many Italians also said they had abstained because they found the questions too complicated.

"This was not a matter for a referendum. When questions are too complex people obviously do not participate," sociologist Garelli told AFP.

The referendum asked people to authorize medical research on embryos, scrap a reference to the embryo as a full human being and give people with hereditary diseases access to medically-assisted procreation, currently permitted only to sterile couples.

The referendum asked whether to abolish current restrictions which only allow couples to create three embryos that must all be implanted at the same time, and without checking whether they carry genetic diseases.

Equal Opportunities Minister Stefania Prestagiacomo, who backed the change, vowed to continue her campaign to modify the law through parliament.

"It is not because this problem only affects a minority of Italians -- sterile couples -- that parliament should not deal with it," said the minister.

Berlusconi's government passed the law last year to end Italy's reputation as a bioethics "Wild West," where an Italian doctor helped women over 60 give birth in the 1990s.