Vatican daily rebukes Italy govt on abortion pill

Rome, Italy - The Vatican newspaper criticized on Tuesday comments by Italy's health minister in favor of the abortion pill, setting the tone for a drawn-out battle with the new centre-left government over its proposed social policies.

L'Osservatore Romano called the RU-486 abortion pill a weapon to carry out "carefree murder," speaking out for the second time in as many days against two of Romano Prodi's women ministers, less than a week after they were sworn in.

On Monday, the newspaper said a proposal by Family Minister Rosy Bindi, a Catholic, to discuss some kind of legal recognition for civil unions was "indefensible."

On Tuesday, it took issue with Health Minister Livia Turco, who said she favored controlled trials of the abortion pill, which is not available for general use in Italy, as a "safe and alternative method" to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

The pill, also known as Mifepristone and currently in use in about 30 countries, blocks the action of the hormone progesterone, needed to sustain a pregnancy.

"The haste in which new ministers are lining up to assert their intentions on particularly sensitive themes is disconcerting," L'Osservatore said in an editorial.

"It's feminism we frankly did not feel the need for," it said.

Nearly 30 years since it was legalized in 1978 despite fierce Vatican opposition, abortion remains a sensitive issue in traditionally Roman Catholic Italy.

Turco's predecessor in Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government halted experiments with the RU-486 and recommended the presence of pro-life activists in state-funded advisory clinics to discourage abortion.

Pope Benedict has also spoken against the abortion pill, as well as against any move to recognize civil partnership for unwed heterosexual and gay couples.

The Church still holds considerable sway in Italy and last year scored a victory against attempts to dismantle the country's strict law on assisted fertility.

The center left has in the past accused the Vatican of interfering in Italy's domestic affairs, but Prodi's broad coalition, which stretches form Roman Catholic moderates to communists, is far from united on abortion and civil unions.

The center right also condemned Turco's comments on Tuesday.

"What you eliminate with the RU-486 or a surgical abortion is not a blood clot but a fully-formed baby," said Roberto Calderoli of the far-right Northern League.

The center right and the Church are against any measure that makes it easier for women to have an abortion.

Official data show that the number of abortions in Italy has actually fallen over the past two decades, with 132,178 pregnancies terminated in 2003 compared with 235,000 in 1982.

The issue has taken on added relevance because of Italy's low birth rate, with women of childbearing age having on average just 1.3 children, one of the lowest fertility rates in the world and down from 2.2 in 1975.