“It’s evident that once we’ve obtained the recognition of the principle that an embryo is a human being, it will be necessary to profoundly modify the law on abortion in order to avoid a clamorous contradiction.”
-Senator Ronconi, UDC, Berlusconi coalition
On December 11th, 2003, the Italian Senate passed one of the most reactionary laws in Western Europe regulating assisted procreation. In keeping with Berlusconi’s concept of power, there was no parliamentary debate nor were any of the opposition amendments allowed that would have made the law more palatable for the citizenry of a “modern democratic republic.” The law was simply ram-rodded through both houses of parliament thanks to Berlusconi’s comfortable rubber-stamp majority. Much to the satisfaction of the Vatican State.
Most surprising in the final vote was the behaviour of Francesco Rutelli and his small center-left party, la Margherita. Despite his anti-clerical Radical past, Rutelli voted for the law in a surprise break with the rest of the center-left coalition. Whereas in the House of Deputies, Rutelli had allowed “freedom of choice” for his party members, he clumsily attempted to discipline party vote in the Senate, causing a party crisis.
The disastrous effects of the law were soon felt. Women and couples had little choice but to go next door to Switzerland, France, Spain or England. Scientific research on staminal cells in Italy was all but curtailed, and last minute break-throughs in the cure of degenerative diseases were branded as Nazi eugenetics by Berlusconi’s right wing pundits.
Civil society quickly reacted to collect the 700,000 signatures necessary to call for a referendum to abrogate the law or, at the least, the most controversial aspects of the law. The Constitutional Court accepted four of the petitions, but did not admit the simple abrogation of the law.
Referendums in Italy may only be called to abrogate existing laws by a simple majority. However, a quorum of 50% of the voting population must vote to validate the results of the referendum. All Italians over the age of eighteen are automatically registered as voters.
Obviously the real battle was not the referendum in itself which everyone knew would pass with a large majority. The real battle was voter abstention.
The right wing government responded with a series of measures. The date of voting was fixed on the last eligible date (next Sunday and Monday) in the hope that many Italians would hit the beaches or be on vacation. The list of Italians residing abroad was allegedly swollen with over 700,000 voters, none of whom could be traced or informed of the referendum. This added an extra 2 to 2.5% of dead weight to the quorum. Referendum information on television was reduced to a minimum of less than five minutes per day per State channel (Berlusconi is Italian television).
At the same time the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Ruini, launched a high-profile campaign for voter abstention. Although a person has a perfect right not to vote and freely express this choice, to actively campaign for voter abstention is a violation of the law. The Catholic clergy has menaced their congregation with the usual fire and brimstone. Prominent right-wing government officials such as Marcello Pera, the Senate president, or PierFerdinando Casini, Chairman of the House, have repeatedly urged the citizenry not to vote. No big deal since approximately one hundred members of Berlusconi’s parliamentary majority are convicted felons or indicted for crimes ranging from corruption, extortion and tax evasion to association with the mafia.
The vast majority of women, regardless of their political affiliation, have come out against the law. Their activism will no doubt determine whether the quorum is reached.
Most note-worthy is the cross-over vote. In a complete about-face, Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s vice-minister and head of the ex-fascist party, Alleanza Nazionale, declared that he would vote against three of the four articles of the law. Prominent member of his party and Minister of Equal Opportunities, Stefania Prestigiacomo, has been one of the most active campaigners for the referendum.
On the contrary, Francesco Rutelli, persists in his misguided attempt to butter up an imaginary conservative Catholic constituency. Apparently he is still part of the center-left pole despite his compulsive grandstanding and media-hogging. In keeping with his original superfluous voting behaviour, he has declared that he will not vote. According to him it’s better to have a bad law rather than no law at all. Which is simply not the case. If the referendum passes, only the more obscene, reactionary aspects of the law will be abrogated.
His wife made it immediately clear that she was voting against all four articles. Just as Berlusconi’s wife. And just as the many Italian Catholics who believe in the separation of Church and State.