The results are in on the Italian referendum on its fertility laws. A low turnout of voters on Sunday 12 June - fewer than 19 per cent - made it doubtful that the 50 per cent turnout rate necessary would be reached, even though the polls were opened for a second day today. Voting ended at 3pm Italian time today, but even those extra hours only increased the turnout to 24 per cent, meaning that whatever the outcome of the vote was, it will be declared null and void.
The referendum organisers had hoped that a second day of voting would encourage Italians who had spent the weekend away from their homes to cast their vote during the working week. However, some analysts had suggested that a Sunday turnout of 35 per cent would have been necessary to increase the final count to 50 per cent. Turnout is thought to have been so low due to calls from the Roman Catholic church - supported by the Vatican - to abstain from voting, as well as voter apathy.
Italy's laws, said to be the most restrictive in Europe, were passed in December 2003 to counter the country's reputation for being the 'Wild West' of fertility treatments. Now, the law restricts the provision of fertility treatments to 'stable heterosexual couples' who live together and are of childbearing age, and who are shown to be clinically infertile. Research using human embryos is prohibited, as well as embryo freezing, gamete donation, surrogacy, and the provision of any fertility treatments for single women or same-sex couples.
The law also says that no more than three eggs can be fertilised at any one time, and that any eggs fertilised must all be transferred to the uterus simultaneously, increasing the risk of multiple births. PGD and prenatal screening for genetic disorders are banned. Since the law was passed, fertility clinics across Europe have reportedly seen an increase in the numbers of Italian patients seeking treatment and also report a marked fall in success rates of IVF treatment.
The referendum was approved by Italy's Constitutional Court last year after the country's Radical Party collected more than the 500,000 signatures necessary. However, the public were only asked to vote on four elements of the law, including the language that gives embryos full legal recognition as persons, the three embryo limit, and rules governing embryo research and gamete donation. The Vatican and Catholic bishops have encouraged people to abstain from voting on moral grounds, while the 'yes' campaign has based its message on choice and safety, particularly for women. A 'yes' vote would have repealed the four provisions, but for the results of the referendum to be legitimated, a 50 per cent turnout was required. 'Yes' supporters criticised the scheduling of the vote, at a time when many Italians take their summer holidays. This was seen as a deliberate attempt by the government to keep the turnout low.