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In Europe, Italy now a guardian of embryo rights

Monday, Italian voters rejected easing a law that limits fertility treatment.

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Spurred by an emboldened Roman Catholic Church, Italian voters Monday effectively gave their seal of approval to a law that gives embryos the status of "full human beings."

In a controversial referendum aimed at relaxing a 2004 law that tightened restrictions on fertility treatment, and bans cloning and embryo stem-cell research, most Italians appeared to heed the Vatican's call to boycott the vote. Polls estimated that only 26 percent of 50 million eligible voters turned out. To be valid, at least half of the electorate had to vote on the referendum.

Critics fear that the law may pave the way for an attempt to reopen the debate on whether abortion should be legal in this country.

Italians, while nominally Catholic, tend to ignore church doctrine regarding family life. They voted en masse to approve laws on abortion and divorce passed in the 1970s. And today, they are among the most habitual users of contraception in Europe.

By giving the embryo the same status as a person, the legislation, known as the Medically Assisted Reproduction Law (MARL), appears to contradict existing abortion law. Embryos created in vitro cannot be screened for genetic disorders. Nor can they be destroyed in the lab. That, critics worry, could force women to implant diseased embryos that they eventually abort.

"It is a disgrace," says Dr. Giovanni Monni, who heads one of Italy's leading fertility clinics on Sardinia. "Italy must be the only country where you cannot destroy an embryo inside a test tube but you can destroy it once it's inside a woman."

Now that the law has been upheld by the public, abortion-rights campaigners fear it is only a matter of time before abortion comes up for debate in parliament. MARL supporters insist the law was drawn up to fill a legislation vacuum on fertility treatment in Italy - not to reopen the abortion debate. Analysts say there is likely to be much more public resistance to any attempt to tighten restrictions on abortion.

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