Referendum in Italy not many voted, no one died, and nothing changed. A cynic might so describe the events of 12-13 June, when 74.1% of Italian citizens chose not to vote in a national referendum on whether to change legislation approved in December 2003 limiting embryo research and assisted fertility treatments. The low turnout, far beneath the 50%-plus required to make the decision valid, meant that Italys medical regime in the field of embryology remains restrictive and governed by a conservative moral discourse.
The official Italian interior ministry results of the 12-13 June 2005 referendum show that just under 25.9% of voters cast ballots in the poll (29.8% in the north, only 15.9% in the south), far short of the 50%-plus quorum needed to make the laws on fertility treatment and embryo research more permissive. Of those who did vote, 75-88% voted yes for changes in the law.
End of story? Not quite. For the referendum result also gave the Catholic church its first political victory under the new pope, Benedict XVI. The Vatican had urged the faithful to boycott the vote, and despite an intense public argument a large majority of Italian citizens complied. Today, 24 June, the pope made the short journey from the Vatican to meet Italys president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, at the presidential palace in Rome, the Quirinale (the two men had met at the Vatican on 3 May).
Ciampis mode of greeting the pope answered a question of etiquette that had absorbed Italys political observers. In deciding not to kiss the papal ring but rather to take the popes hand in his own hands (a friendlier act than shaking hands but also a way of saying: amico, be careful, I look at you ), the president was symbolically affirming the Italian states secular identity. He followed by declaring his pride that Italy was a secular state, while the pope said the Catholic church reserved the right to speak out on ethical matters.
During the referendum campaign, President Ciampi had openly criticised the churchs boycott crusade, and he voted early and publicly on the first day of the referendum. He has long believed in the need to define (as he called it in a 2001 speech) the boundary between secular power and clerical power. But does Ciampi represent the last bastion of the Italian state against what some regard as an encroaching neo-clericalism?
The referendum asked four questions about ending limits on embryo freezing and research; limiting each treatment to three embryos and allowing the screening for disease of pre-implanted embryos; deciding whether an embryo has the rights of a person; and scrapping the ban on sperm and egg donation.
Also in openDemocracy, a debate on Democracy in the Catholic church with contributions from (among others) Neal Ascherson, Lavinia Byrne, Michael Walsh, Austen Ivereigh, Timothy Radcliffe, Joanna Bogle, and Ariel Dorfman
The passion of the fertility debate echoed those over the legalisation of divorce and abortion in the 1970s and 1980s which the church tried to annul using the national referendum as a weapon. The issue split the political class. Pier Ferdinando Casini and Marcello Pera, presidents of the chamber of deputies and the senate, supported abstention in the referendum, as did Francesco Rutelli, leader of the centre-left Margherita coalition.
Silvio Berlusconi, the usually quite talkative prime minister, kept his own counsel, though his foreign minister Gianfranco Fini of the right-wing National Alliance surprisingly favoured liberalisation (because, his critics claimed, he was in love with the nice-looking equal opportunities minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, a strong yes campaigner).
The referendum campaign also divided intellectuals, doctors, scientists, and public figures (as well as couples: Berlusconis wife Veronica Lario favoured a change in the law, as did Rutellis wife, journalist Barbara Palombelli). The renowned (or notorious) journalist Oriana Fallaci invoked Josef Mengeles Nazi experiments in arguing against changing the law. Many yes campaigners were equally partisan, including actresses Sabrina Ferrilli and Monica Bellucci, television presenter Simona Ventura, and the model Afef Jnifen (the wife of Telecom Italias CEO Marco Tronchetti Provera). They also had the support of Nobel medicine laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini and leading oncology expert Umberto Veronesi.
The passion on either side wasnt enough to galvanise Italians, who proved more susceptible to the advice of Pope Benedict XVI and his cardinals. Life cannot be put to a vote: dont vote, announced giant billboards bearing a picture of a mother and her child. The 26,000 priests in churches across Italy reinforced the message.
The low turnout took everyone by surprise even the jubilant Catholic church, whose Cardinal Camillo Ruini said that the vote expresses Italians wisdom, their moral awareness. Surveys suggest that the clerical-political campaign for abstention influenced more than one-third of the electorate. The yes campaigners were stung by the debacle. The reaction of Emma Bonino, former European Union commissioner and leading proponent of the referendum, was representative: today we have three victims: the secularism of the state, political authority and the institution of the referendum.
Also by Sarah Pozzoli (with Mario Rossi) in openDemocracy:
The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi (April 2005)
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What kind of state?
Alberto Ronchey of Italys leading newspaper Corriere della Sera comments that the Catholic bishops voice is becoming as influential on the centre-left coalition as on the centre-right majority. A greater role for religious education, public funds for private kindergartens (most of which are Catholic), and tax concessions to the church (amounting to 936 million in 2004) all suggest the rise of a neo-clericalism tendency. Ronchey says: The church has the right to urge its precepts on its followers, but it must stay out of the political scene and not put too much pressure on the legislative process.
But if Ronchey is right, and if figures like Ciampi and Bonino can be regarded as principled defenders of the Italian states lay character, what about the Italian people? The Vatican could not prevent them from legalising divorce and abortion in the last three decades. What has happened since? The victory for life argument claimed by boycott campaigners seems too facile. Voter apathy and confusion about a complicated issue should not be underestimated. But the outcome of the 2005 referendum has left open the question of what kind of country, and what kind of democracy, Italians really want.
Corriere della Sera
Catholic World News