| Pope Benedict blesses pilgrims in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday. (AFP)
Rome, June 12 (Reuters): Italians began voting in an emotionally charged four-part referendum on fertility treatment and embryo research today that will test the influence of the Catholic Church and newly elected Pope Benedict.
As two days of voting that could repeal a restrictive law on assisted procreation began, the big question was whether a minimum turnout of 50 per cent of eligible voters would be reached. If not, the referendums would be null and void.
Four hours after the polls opened only 4.6 per cent of those eligible had voted and commentators said there was a real risk of missing the minimum needed by tomorrow afternoon.
The Church and other groups who want the law to stand have urged Italians to boycott the vote in order to miss the minimum.
Italy was known as a Wild West of fertility because nearly everything was allowed ' including a notorious case where a doctor helped a 62-year-old woman have a child in the 1990s. But now it has some of Europe’s most conservative fertility laws, brought in last year to rein in the free-for-all.
The number of infertile couples seeking help abroad has tripled since the law was approved. Italy already has one of Europe’s lowest birth rates. If most Italians vote “yes” on any of the four referendums, the law will be significantly changed.
“Yes” votes would lift a ban on egg and sperm donors; allow embryo freezing and research; and remove limits on the number of eggs that can be fertilised during each attempt.
The referendums also aim to change language that gives embryos full legal rights and prevents diagnosis for genetic disorders before they are transferred to the uterus ' even though women can then abort a foetus that has disorders.
Equal Opportunities Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo ' who broke ranks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ' says the current law is an attack on women’s rights and needs to be changed in order to help Italian women have children in Italy.
The referendum run-up has sparked the most heated moral debate since divorce and abortion were legalised in the 1970s. Priests have used pulpits to rally the faithful behind the slogan: “Life cannot be put to a vote: don’t vote”.
While leftist newspapers today promoted a “yes” vote, the Catholic Avvenire paper’s first page read: “An embryo is not a curl of matter but the start of the life of each of us.”
Pope Benedict, elected in April, made his first foray into Italian politics by backing the bishops’ boycott campaign.
Some of those who oppose the current law ' which defines some legal rights of the embryo ' fear that if it stands as is, “pro-life” activists may then try to repeal abortion.
A group of doctors went on strike to raise the profile of the “yes” camp, which is also supported by Nobel prize-winning scientists and actor Monica Bellucci who famously demanded: “What do politicians and priests know about my ovaries'”