updated 6/13/2005 12:06:19 PM ET 2005-06-13T16:06:19

Efforts to loosen Italy’s assisted-fertility laws in a referendum failed Monday because low voter turnout invalidated the balloting — a victory for the Vatican.

Turnout must be more than 50 percent of the electorate for the referendum to be valid. In two days of balloting, only about 26 percent had voted, according to nearly complete returns released by the Interior Ministry.

The vote was seen as a test of the Vatican’s influence in a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic but has strayed from church doctrine, notably by approving divorce and abortion in referendums decades ago.

Balloting followed weeks of emotionally charged debate.

“Certainly the referendum was lost by a margin that I would not have expected,” said Emma Bonino, a former EU commissioner and one of the main proponents of the referendum.

“Today we have three victims: the secularism of the state, political authority and the institution of the referendum,” she told reporters in Rome.

Pope endorsed staying away
The Vatican had waged a fierce campaign to maintain the limitations currently envisioned in the law, including a ban on sperm and egg donation for couples undergoing assisted fertility treatment.

The Italian bishops’ conference repeatedly called on voters to abstain, and Pope Benedict XVI endorsed the appeal. He contended that the efforts to overturn parts of the law posed threats to life and the family.

Opponents of the legislation said the law is too restrictive and prevents research to treat diseases.

“People complain but then they never do anything to solve their problems,” said 42-year-old Concetta Naclerio, who went to the polls. “The majority of people who didn’t vote on the referendum were lazy.”

Other Italians mentioned the Vatican’s campaign and the complexity of the issues at stake to explain the low turnout, as well as the fact that citizens have grown tired since referendums have been called frequently and on a variety of issues in the past decade.

No referendums have reached the required turnout since 1995.

The current law limits the number of embryos that can be created to three, forbids sperm or egg donation and prohibits scientific research using embryos.

The referendums asked voters whether Italy should end all those limitations, as well as permit fertile couples with hereditary diseases to screen their embryos.

Minister laments vote
Equal Opportunities Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo, who had campaigned to have the law loosened, expressed disappointment.

“It has been an important battle of conscience, which I consider right. The motivations still remain even if the result is not satisfactory,” Prestigiacomo said. “The problems of this law remain.”

Italian politicians were split, with parties generally telling their voters to decide according to their consciences.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi was among the early voters Sunday, but did not say how he cast his ballot. Premier Silvio Berlusconi did not disclose if he voted.

Italians have defied the church in two referendums considered milestones for Italian society: Divorce was upheld in 1974 and abortion in 1981. The latter vote dealt a blow to the late Pope John Paul II, who campaigned vigorously against abortion.

The trend seemed to be confirmed by a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, which found that nearly two-thirds of Italians think religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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