Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, accompanied by his wife Franca Pilla, arrives at the polling station in Rome Sunday, June 12, 2005
A national referendum is being held in Italy on whether to loosen legislation on assisted fertility. Intense campaigning has seen the Catholic Church pitted against those who say the law hurts scientific research and infringes on reproductive freedom.

Italians are voting on whether key parts of the law on assisted fertility should be changed. Italy has one of the toughest laws on the subject in Europe. It was passed last year and approved by the Catholic Church.

Until then, Italy had no legislation, and all practices were allowed. The law now bans egg or sperm donation from outside the couple as well as embryo screening, freezing and research.

Opponents of the law say it is too restrictive and prevents research to treat diseases, They argue Italians should be free to choose for themselves and they say the Catholic Church should stop interfering in state laws.

Italy's bishops and the pope have urged Italians not to vote. But turnout is crucial. The referendum will not be valid unless 50% of eligible voters turn up.

Leading Italian Catholic politicians on Sunday defied the call by the Vatican to boycott the poll. Among the first to cast their ballots were the Italian president and his wife. Both are staunch Catholics.

But others heeded the Church's call, like this politician. Renzo Lusetti, of the Daisy Party said he thinks such a complex issue cannot be decided through a referendum. He said he feels he should defend the existing law, which he voted for and the best way to do that is not to vote.

Eight hours after the polls opened Sunday morning only about 13 percent of Italians eligible to vote had cast their ballots. But voting will also take place on Monday.