Italian Church jumps into election fray over abortion

Rome, Italy - Italy's Catholic Church has accused the national medical association of playing politics over abortion, joining a passionate debate in the run up to a parliamentary election in April.

While most of the outgoing centre-left coalition supports the abortion law, centre-right politicians are divided, some favoring a more restrictive approach, others an outright ban.

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, said a statement the association issued at a weekend congress, supporting the current abortion law, was invalid and "imaginary" because it had been approved "by acclamation" and not put to an individual vote by delegates.

Science and Life, a Catholic doctors' group, called the medical association's action a "putsch" and demanded a referendum.

The clash, which dominated Italian newspapers on Monday, appeared to thwart any attempt by political parties to keep the thorny issue of abortion in the background of the campaign.

Pope Benedict repeated the Church's opposition to abortion on Monday, saying life must be respected "from its dawn" and "in every moment of its earthly development" but did not mention the doctors' dispute

The medical association's statement was intended as a guide for doctors on how to deal with the issue during the campaign for the April 13-14 elections.

It said doctors should "support" Italy's 30-year-old abortion law while also promoting campaigns for "responsible procreation" that would limit recourse to abortion.

The national medical association also backed the so-called "morning-after pill," which can stop ovulation within about 72 hours of sexual intercourse, and the RU-486, which blocks the action of hormones needed to keep a fertilized egg implanted in the uterus.

The medical association rejected the Church's accusations as "false and strange." Association president Amedeo Bianco said the aim was not to encourage abortion but help prevent it while applying the law.

The current law allows for abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and until the 24th week if the mother's life is at risk or if the fetus is seriously malformed.

Critics, mainly on the centre right, argue the law should be made more restrictive in light of medical advances allowing the survival of some fetuses born before 24 weeks.

Giuliano Ferrara, a prominent conservative journalist and former minister in the first government of opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, is running for parliament with his own "List for Life" party.

A former communist who argues abortion is "evil and should be eradicated," Ferrara was shown in nearly every national newspaper on Monday kissing Pope Benedict's hand during the Pontiff's weekend visit to a Rome parish.

Berlusconi, who has a clear lead in opinion polls, has said the United Nations should vote for a moratorium on abortion just as the world body has on the death penalty.