Victory for pope

After a successful campaign by the catholic church urging people not to vote, the June 12-13 Italian referendum on fertility rights was declared void after the necessary 50% turnout was not achieved. Only 25.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot and consequently Italian laws on assisted fertility remain amongst the most restrictive in Europe. Current legislation bans the use of donor sperm and eggs and outlaws surrogate mothers. The law stipulates that no more than three embryos may be created at one time. They cannot be frozen and must be implanted in the womb simultaneously. Even then, assisted fertility is restricted to "stable" heterosexual couples. Italians were asked to vote for or against proposals to change the law in four respects: * to drop the definition of an embryo as having the same 'rights' as children or adults; * to permit third-party donors of eggs or sperm; * to lift the three-egg limit; * to allow embryo research. Since the turnout fell far short of the necessary threshold, the 'yes' and 'no' votes were not counted. While a 'yes' would have been an advance, it would hardly have represented the gaining of control by women over their own reproductive capacity. Not only would assisted fertility still have been subject to bureaucratic restrictions, but abortion is only permitted up to the first three months of pregnancy. 'Yes' campaigners in Italy had not only hoped to liberalise the law, but also to clarify the separation of church and state and strike a blow against the influence of the catholic establishment. Had the referendum been passed, it would have been used as proof of the declining influence of the church - a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that nearly two-thirds of Italians think religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions. Italians have rejected the church's dogma in past referenda, such as the 1974 vote on making divorce illegal. They have also resisted the church's attempts to overturn the 1978 law allowing abortion up to three months. In 1981 the Vatican successfully demanded a referendum to reintroduce a complete ban, but the proposal itself was defeated, despite an all-out campaign headed by pope John Paul II. Furthermore, the Vatican's rulings on contraception appear to be widely ignored, with the country having one of the lowest birth rates in the world. At the last Convention of Clergy John Paul II condemned "pseudo-marriages" between homosexuals and deplored abortion and genetic engineering. Now the large-scale abstention in this week's referendum - whether through apathy or heeding the church's advice - is being used by rightwing and religious forces to renew their attack on Italy's already highly restricted abortion rights. According to regional affairs minister Enrico La Loggia, "Today's Italy has proven to be different from that of yesterday - more attentive to the values of the catholic tradition." For him the low turnout was an indication that the "principles for the protection of life" were being "affirmed" and this "must be taken into account" in relation to revisiting the question of abortion. Despite emptier churches and a weaker regard among young people for religious declarations, the church and politicians such as La Loggia see the referendum outcome as a victory - it is a sign of the further entrenchment of the church's influence and a rebuff for secularism. Rather than a rebirth of catholicism, however, it is perhaps a reflection of the publicity surrounding the new pope, Benedict XVI - the public was swept along in the tide of media coverage of the death of Jean-Paul II and the inauguration of his successor. Moreover, the result is not surprising, given the complexity of the issues being voted on. Many catholics who did not understand the technicalities of the law would have followed calls from the Vatican to stay at home. Not only do Italy's reactionary laws limit the rights of all women (and gays) - they also disproportionately affect working class women. Affluent couples can pay for expensive private treatment in other countries where laws are less restrictive, whilst those who cannot afford to do so must struggle within the limits of Italian law. All this points to the need for an all-Europe campaign of the type that was raised by the recent referenda in France and Holland on the EU constitution - a campaign for a different Europe that carries the imprint of the working class, a Europe where social and political rights are equalised on the basis of the most advanced. Emily Bransom