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In Europe, Italy now a guardian of embryo rights

Monday, Italian voters rejected easing a law that limits fertility treatment.

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But even the most fervent campaigners did not want the 2004 law abolished altogether. Some kind of law, they acknowledged, was needed to fill a vacuum that had allowed Italy to become the Wild West of fertility treatment. In the 1990s, a 62-year-old woman gave birth, thanks to maverick doctor Severino Antinori, who later claimed he was trying to clone a human.

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But the law, supported by Catholics and opposed by female politicians across the political spectrum, has turned into the most open test of the Vatican's influence on Italian politics in recent history.

Monday's referendum flop was a victory for the Vatican in the most highly charged moral and ethical debate in Italy since abortion and divorce laws were passed in the 1970s.

There were howls of protest from the abortion-rights campaign, horrified that Pope Benedict XVI waded personally into the political arena in so-called secular Italy, putting pressure on this overwhelmingly Catholic nation to boycott the vote.

In the weeks before the vote, scientists, film stars, and even the prime minister's wife came out in favor of a less-restrictive law. Women's rights groups warned that Italy was heading back to the "dark ages" with a law that has forced hundreds of couples to seek fertility treatment abroad.

But at the same time, towns all over Italy were plastered with posters showing an embryo developing into a baby and urging people not to vote.

Priests called on their flocks to stay away from polling stations, hammering home the slogan: 'Life cannot be put to a vote: don't vote." Benedict XVI announced his personal support for a campaign by Italian bishops to prevent the vote reaching the necessary 50 percent quorum.

Italians were already weary of voting after a string of regional and local elections in recent months. On top of that, the technical details of the new law were quite complex. Given the choice between the ballot box and the beach, many took the easier option.

But the church's intervention seems to have ensured that the referendum failed. "The cardinal won!" said Rosy Bindy, a devout Catholic deputy in the left-wing Margherita party, referring to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, head of the Italian bishops council, who led the boycott campaign.

"Today, the Catholic Church is stronger in social and political life in Italy that is has been for the past 30 years," says Professor Ferrari. "People feel the need for an identity. And in Italy, when you ask 'Who am I?', the easiest answer is, "I'm a Catholic."

Peter Ford in Paris contributed to this report.

Italy's fertility law

• Human cloning is banned.

• Embryos cannot be frozen or used for research, including stem-cell research.

• Only heterosexual couples of child-bearing age in a "stable" relationship (not necessarily married) can use artificial insemination; they must use their own sperm and eggs.

• Surrogacy is not allowed.

• Only three embryos can be created from one cycle of hormone treatment, and all three must be implanted simultaneously.

• Embryos cannot be screened before being implanted for genetic disorders. The prospective mother does not have the option to refuse implantation of any of the fertilized eggs.

• Doctors providing banned forms of fertility treatment face fines up to $482,000 and temporary suspension from practice. Anyone who attempts human cloning faces up to 20 years in jail.

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