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June 11, 2005

Exclusive: LETTER FROM ROME ITALY'S REFERENDUM -- IT'S REALLY ABOUT ABORTION

This is the second in a series of occasional Letters from Rome, written exclusively for DIRELAND at our request by Judy Harris, an ex-pat journalist who has lived in Italy for many years and casts a savvy eye on Italian politics. In this sassy report, she dissects what's really behind tomorrow's referendum in Italy.

LETTER FROM ROME:                                                                    From a Quarrel Over Embryos, a Dinosaur EggJudy_hareris_1

by Judy Harris (photo right)

Italy¹s national referendum this coming Sunday and Monday was called to overturn the harsher aspects of a recently promulgated law ruling out, among others, assisted procreation. A "yes" vote paves the way for making embryonic implants and stem cell research possible; a "no" vote maintains the present political and religious ultra conservative Pope_cartoon_1 status quo.

In real terms, this means that the well-to-do infertile will fly the equivalent of a trip from New York to Cleveland for treatment outside Italy. Those with meaner incomes who might like to have a child but cannot will have to make do with watching family values on display in the (unintentionally) zany Neapolitan family sit-com, Un Posto al Sole (A Place in the Sun).

The referendum campaign, too,  has its zany elements. On Friday afternoon I heard a far-right member of Parliament declare with a sob in his throat that a "yes" vote is the equivalent of Hitler¹s genetics of the Holocaust.

When Italy¹s Nobel Prize-winning scientist Rita Levi Montalcino spoke  for a "yes" vote, a Vatican Science commission flak said she lacked specific expertise and should shut up.

Among the more outrageously whacky comments is one from the Oriana_fallaci_3 New York-based Italian anti-Arab passionaria Oriana Fallaci (right). To a reporter for Liberation in France the Italian journalist announced that "the real objective (of the referendum boosters) is human clonage- that is, the Hitler dream of a superman created in a lab."

Francesco_rutelli Not least, a leftist political leader, the former Radical Party boy ingenue Francesco Rutelli, the ex-Mayor of Rome (photo left), abandoned the "yes" slate of the already weak and fractured Italian left, earning praise from new friends in Silvio Berlusconi¹s party, Forza Italia.

Most seriously, the new pontiff waded into the fray, instructing Italian Catholics not to vote at all. Since then, the Church has been the foremost protagonist of this vote. Catholic-financed posters blanketing Rome are promoting this "ACTIVE ABSTENTION," as they call it in huge letters, because to stay at home is to deny a quorum and hence, by invalidating the referendum, to maintain the present nasty law.

And they are winning. Few expect that a quorum (through a technicality just ratcheted up from 50% to 52% of eligible voters) will be reached. Many voters simply do not understand the science involved, the wording of the referendum queries, or the learned explanations (what is "a mass of cells"?).

Ratzinger_1But even if no quorum is reached, bitter memories of this emotion-steeped campaign will linger, because Pope Benedict XVI specifically asked Italians not to participate in what is a legitimate democratic process. Gianfranco Fini, the Foreign Minister who is the leader of Alleanza Nazionale (the party that is heir to the old neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement) pointed out politely that the pope¹s inviting voters not to vote was "dis-educational." Legalists added that the papal admonition was a veiled threat to the numerous Italian citizens employed in Catholic schools and hospitals. Oddly enough, many Catholics here, unlike Rutelli, are offended; and even inside the Vatican there are fears that an anti-clerical backlash may favor a "yes" vote.

"I am hearing that my friends are going to stop making their annual financial contributions to the Church," said an irate teacher, a Catholic. Said a building supply company owner: "Pope John Paul II was a conservative too, but he was a politician. He would never have interfered like this. The new pope let himself fall into a trap."

In many ways, it seems logical that Italy should have such a restrictivePopes_mitre_1  law. This nominally Catholic nation, which moreover shares its capital city with the vestiges of papal territory, has a tax-financed health system that could be obliged to pay for at least some assisted procreation procedures. The inherent conflict could hardly fail to spill over into politics.

Nevertheless, without undue fracas, Italy legalized divorce in 1974 and, shortly afterward, abortion, free of cost in public hospitals. And, in fact, abortion is what the battle is really about. The restrictive law on assisted procreation as passed by Parliament appears a mere first step toward repeal of the present abortion law. Hence the unusual degree of Church interference, actively promoted by the head of the Italian bishops' conference, Cardinal Ruini, and then accepted by the timid, visibly uncertain new pope. (The mainstream Protestant churches in Italy, by the way, are urging the overturning of the restrictive law.)

The corollary of this implant of traditional Catholic morality is the probable hatching of a dinosaur egg -- the revival of Catholic politics. Premier Silvio Berlusconi¹s improvised political party Forza Italia has a secular basis, but recent local elections show loss of dazzle. The referendum has provided Catholic politicians here an occasion for self-righteousness, prelude to a possible return to center-stage. Rocco_blutiglione_2 None is more grateful than conservative politician Rocco Buttiglione (photo right) , rejected as an EU commissioner for his pro-Roman Catholic Church politics.

Romano_prodi All this has caught many in the left embarrassed. However, the leader of the Uliva, Romano Prodi (photo left), a staunch Catholic, did stand up to say that he would vote "as an adult Catholic" -- which, one presumes, means he will not let the Church scold him like a child.

P.S. late Saturday: A front-page cartoon in today's Corriere della Sera tells you what is going on in the divided left. It shows three leftist leaders --Rutelli, Fassino and Rosi Bindi. Over Rutelli's head is written AStensione; over Fassino's, SI and over Bindi'sj, NO. Together this leftist rainbow spells out: ASINO, which is to say, donkey (ass). We are all aghast, especially at Rutelli's going for abstention.

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