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Italians to Decide on Assisted Pregnancy Law

Italians vote in a national referendum Sunday and Monday aimed at changing the country's law on assisted fertility, one of the most restrictive in Europe. A bitter debate has broken out among supporters and opponents of the current law with church leaders and politicians strongly voicing their positions.

It's called Law N40 and it regulates access to assisted fertility in Italy. The law has only been in existence since last year. It took years of debate and members of parliament crossing party lines to finally win its approval.

Today, it's one of the toughest laws on the subject in Europe. It bans the use of donor sperm or eggs, surrogate mothers and screening, freezing, research and experimentation on embryos.

Many believe the reason for the existence of such a restrictive law in predominantly Catholic Italy has to do with the influence of the Vatican on Italian voters.

Voting on a moral issue has enflamed the political climate with some politicians saying the church should stop interfering in state laws. Divorce and abortion exist in Italy but it took years for those issues to become state law.

For the past few weeks, supporters and opponents of the law have been fiercely campaigning in an effort to attract voters to their respective camps. Church leaders and the pope himself have spoken out against changing the law.

Daniele Capezzone, leader of the Italian Radical party, says he does not believe there will be a clash between devout and non-practicing Catholics because, he says, Italian Catholics are liberals and as in the case of divorce and abortion, they will vote for freedom of choice this time as well.

Politicians who favor the law have urged voters to boycott the election. Those who oppose it say a "yes" vote should be cast to improve the existing law, to guarantee the health of women and to guarantee research.

Piero Fassino, leader of the Left Democrats party, says voters should not desert the polls. "Going to the polls allows every opinion to be expressed," he said. "Those who, like us, believe the law can be changed for the better will vote "yes", those who want to keep it the way it is can vote "no", and those who want to abstain also have that option. But not going to the polls," he added, "is abstaining without having the courage to say it."

A recent poll says only around 40 percent of Italians would vote "yes" in the referendum. In order for the vote to be valid, 50 percent plus one of eligible voters must cast their ballots. If the quorum is not reached, the law will stay as is.

Former EU commissioner and Radical party member Emma Bonino has been strongly urging Italians to vote yes to all four questions being posed. She says women and men of this country who are responsible for their freedom, their life and their hopes for health treatment must go and vote four times "yes", for their lives.

Doctors and scientists have taken different sides in this referendum, as have women. Not all of them have campaigned for a "yes" vote, like Olimpia Tarsi of the Committee Women and Life. "We do not want to block research. But I would like to remind everyone that stem cells are found in embryos, in the umbilical cord and in adult tissue and to this day there is no published valid scientific paper that documents that someone's illness has been cured because of embryo stem cells," she said.

Opponents of the referendum also say the subject matter is too complicated to be voted by the general public. They claim the matter has to be dealt with in parliament. Italy's constitutional court cleared the way for the referendum after more than four million signatures were collected in a petition which called for the law to be repealed.