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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK
Italian fertility vote collapses
Woman walks past posters advocating abstention
Campaign posters in Italy say that abstaining is "a natural act"
An Italian referendum on relaxing strict fertility laws has failed to reach the 50% turnout figure necessary for it to be valid.

Interior ministry figures showed that about 24% of Italian voters cast their ballots in the two-day referendum.

Turnout is thought to have been affected by both a call for abstention made by the Catholic Church - backed by the Pope, as well as voter apathy.

The law stops sperm and egg donation, and bans screening embryos for disease.

Suffering may be the Catholic way, but it is not the humane way
Jennifer Hynes, Plymouth, UK

It limits the number of embryos created for each treatment to three, all of which have to be implanted at the same time.

Many infertile couples who want children have started seeking medical assistance abroad as a result of the regulations.

The legislation also forbids embryo research.

Fertility experts said the referendum's failure was a "sad" day for infertile couples.

The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) warned that the Catholic Church was now likely to step up its stand against biomedical research and fertility treatment.

Politicians defiant

Italian pollsters delivered a stinging verdict on the referendum in the country's newspapers on Monday.

Antinori Severino
Doctor Antinori Severino helped a 59-year-old give birth to twins
"The referendum is finished, over, done with," polling analyst Nicola Piepoli wrote in La Repubblica.

Equal Opportunities Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo, the only government figure to campaign actively for the change in the law, voiced concerns that a comprehensive defeat would endanger Italy's laws on abortion as a number of the issues overlap.

"The inconsistencies... are enormous. I expect in the short-to-medium term, someone will take the initiative," she told the Corriere della Serra newspaper.

Italians legalised divorce and abortion in two landmark referendums held in 1974 and 1981 - decisions seen as symptomatic of the declining influence of the Catholic Church.

"Yes" campaigners had hoped that opening the polls for a second day would encourage Italians to cast their vote at the start of the working week.

'Enlighten consciences'

Pope Benedict XVI
The Pope has praised bishops for their stance on the vote
The current law was drafted and passed amid concerns that Italy had become one of the most liberal countries in the world in the field of assisted conception.

Before the law was passed, one fertility doctor based in Italy was able to help women in their 60s to become pregnant.

But the law rapidly transformed Italy into one of the most restrictive countries for fertility treatment.

Italian bishops, with the backing of the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, told people in the predominantly Catholic country to boycott the vote on moral grounds - and retain the status quo.

In opposing the referendum, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of Italian bishops, said the Vatican was looking to "enlighten consciences" and defend life.

Italians give their views on the country's fertility laws

Pope backs Italy embryo boycott
30 May 05 |  Europe
Italy bans donor sperm and eggs
11 Dec 03 |  Europe

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