ROME — Pope Benedict XVI waded into Italian politics Monday by endorsing calls for voters to boycott a referendum that would ease restrictions on artificial insemination and embryonic research.
The hotly contested referendum, which goes before the public in two weeks, would reverse a controversial law that has drastically curtailed the ability of Italian women to seek medical help in getting pregnant. The Roman Catholic Church opposes fertility treatments in part because embryos are often destroyed in the process.
It was the second time since Benedict has become pope that the Vatican has attempted to assert its will over secular law in traditionally Catholic countries and reflects the conservative beliefs of the new pontiff. In April, the church ordered Catholics in Spain to refuse to implement a new gay marriage law. Speaking Monday to the Italian bishops' conference, Benedict praised the group for standing up for what he termed the rights of embryos and defending "family values" by "illuminating and motivating" Italian citizens to turn against the referendum.
"I am close to you in word and in prayer," he told the bishops, who had urged Italians to stay away from the polls to ensure a weak turnout on the days of the referendum. Should that happen, the law will remain in effect.
Italy was once among the world's most liberal countries in regard to fertility treatments and reproductive research. It produced some of the oldest new mothers through in vitro fertilization -- age was no limit -- and imposed few restrictions on reproductive experimentation. One prominent Italian doctor proudly proclaimed his intention to clone humans.
In December 2003, however, a bill drafted and passed by the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with enthusiastic support from Catholic politicians and the church, clamped down on all aspects of assisted fertility.
The law imposed some of the most restrictive reproductive legislation in Europe. It banned most research on embryos, imparting to embryos the rights of born children, and outlawed the use of donor sperm and eggs. Women beyond childbearing age, gay couples and single women were denied access to in vitro fertilization and other techniques.
The law also limited to three the number of eggs that could be harvested and fertilized at one time and required that all three be implanted in a woman's womb at once. Women no longer could refuse implantation once the eggs were fertilized. The freezing of sperm and spare embryos was forbidden, so the all-too-frequent failures to conceive forced women to start the painful and expensive process all over again. And embryos no longer could be screened for abnormalities.
Women's groups and many people in the medical profession were outraged, saying the law was potentially dangerous to the health of women and their babies. Proponents said the measure protected the unborn.
Italians will vote on the referendum June 12 and 13. Passage of the repeal requires not only a majority of ballots in favor, but a turnout of 50% of eligible voters plus one.
"We are not against science and its progress," Cardinal Camillo Ruini, head of the bishops' conference and a leader of the boycott, said Monday. "However, we want science to be at the service of the good of man ... without losing sight of the dignity of every human being."
But opponents, including a political party that collected more than 1 million petition signatures to force the referendum, said the pope's intervention was inappropriate.
"This interference is serious and dangerous," Gloria Buffo, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Left party, told the Italian news agency Ansa. "The active, militant and hammering participation of the Italian bishops regarding the referendum campaign is ... harmful to the freedom of popular choice.
"The lay nature of the state [and] its independence from the Catholic church," she said, "is being eroded."