Infertile democracy

A low turnout in Italy's fertility referendum was interpreted as a sign of voter stupidity

Dominic Standish

Topics Politics

On 12 and 13 June, Italians had the opportunity to vote in a referendum to change the Medically Assisted Reproduction Law. This law was passed in March 2004 and had restricted fertility treatment in Italy, prompting many Italians to travel abroad for treatment. As I reported for spiked at the time (1), the law meant that Italy went from being considered the ‘Wild West’ of fertility treatment to having one of the strictest legal frameworks in Europe.

The referendum focused on changing the most restrictive aspects of the Medically Assisted Reproduction Law. The referendum asked the Italian electorate to consider scrapping four parts of the law:

(1) A ban on most research on embryos;

(2) A limit allowing no more than three embryos to be transplanted into the uterus;

(3) An article giving embryos the same rights as a child who has been born;

(4) A ban on sperm or eggs donation.

Those in favour of reforming the law campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum, while those wanting to maintain the law campaigned for ‘No’ votes or abstention. Referenda in Italy require a 50 percent turnout for any decision to be valid. In two days of balloting, only 25.9 percent of voters had cast ballots, according to complete returns released by the Interior Ministry. Between 80 and 90 per cent of those who did vote answered ‘Yes’ to a change in the law, but the referendum will have no legal effect because the required quorum of 50 percent was not reached.

The failure of the referendum to change the restrictive fertility law has been widely interpreted as a victory for the Catholic Church. ‘Vatican victorious after boycott over fertility referendum’, ran the headline in the UK Independent (2). Similarly, the Reuters news agency titled a newswire: ‘Catholic Church victorious in Italy fertility vote.’ (3)

The Catholic Church had campaigned hard for abstention in the referendum, with the Italian bishops’ conference calling for a voter boycott. In his first intervention in Italian politics since he was elected in April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI depicted the referendum as a threat to life and family, and endorsed the bishops’ efforts. Priests continued to preach against the referendum on the morning of Sunday 12 June, when polls had opened and political parties were banned from campaigning.

Many ‘Yes’ campaigners complained that the Catholic Church had overstepped its authority by intervening in Italian domestic affairs. Emma Bonino, Italian MEP and long-time crusader for women’s rights, argued: ‘The church campaigned to delegitimise the vote by using the option given by the law itself to call for a very low turnout.’ It is true that the Catholic Church intervened, but this is not unusual. The Vatican consistently meddles in Italian politics. Italian parish priests usually give strong indications of how their congregations should vote before elections and referenda.

But the Catholic Church’s campaign for abstention is an insufficient explanation for why the referendum failed. Over the past 20 years, there has been a huge decline in church attendance and a growing disregard for Catholicism on questions including contraception and premarital sex. Nobody can seriously argue that the Church now has greater influence in Italy than it did in 1974 and 1981, when it lost in referenda allowing divorce and abortion.

Some have acknowledged this contradiction. ‘Commentators wrestled with the paradox that, despite emptier churches and an ever weaker regard for the declarations of the Church on issues such as contraception and abortion, its influence appears once again to be on the rise’, stated Peter Popham in the UK Independent (2). If the Church really has such a powerful hold over Italians, why didn’t it campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the fertility referendum? A ‘No’ vote would have given a clear endorsement of the current fertility law. Indeed, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, head of the Italian Episcopal Conference, reacted to the referendum vote by saying that it would be a mistake to call the result a victory, and that he would have preferred a ‘No’ majority vote.

The real reason for the referendum’s failure is the political disengagement of the Italian electorate. The difference between the referenda defeats for the Church in 1974 and 1981, and its apparent ‘victory’ in 2005, is that in those days the large majority of Italians voted. For the referendum on divorce in 1974, 87 per cent of the electorate turned out. But we live in an era when politics has lost its spark. Indeed, no referendum in Italy during the past 10 years has achieved the required voter turnout of 50 percent. The unfortunate reality is that this turnout would probably not have been reached on any political question, irrespective of the Church’s intervention.

But the answer is not to blame voters. ‘While conservatives and church leaders welcomed the outcome, analysts suggested that apathy and confusion did more to keep voters home and away from the polls’, asserted one article (4). Massimo Cacciari, the mayor of Venice and a well-known radical philosopher, said many people had abstained simply because the four-part referendum question was ‘too complex’. Likewise, Renato Mannheimer, a pollster at the University of Milan, said the issues in the referendum were ‘too complicated’ for Italians (5). But are we really to believe that the turnout was low because the referendum was so hard to understand? It seems that many analysts have reinterpreted political disengagement as voter stupidity.

Despite his disappointment with the result of the referendum, ‘Yes’ campaigner Daniele Capezzone managed to link voter apathy to the broader rejection of political change. Capezzone, secretary of the Radical Party that was the main promoter of the referendum, resisted the temptation to blame the Church and stupid voters. ‘I don’t think it is a Vatican victory. I think it is a victory of apathy and of indifference. Many people really don’t think they can change things in Italy and this is terrible’, stated Capezzone.

Political disengagement has deepened in Italy since the crisis of the First Republic in 1992-4, when leading political parties collapsed and technocratic governments were installed. During the referendum campaign, politicians only exaggerated long-term voter disengagement by consciously taking politics out of the fertility issue.

‘Italy needs unity right now and it seems pointless turning everything into a political issue’, said prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who refused to vote in the referendum and spent the first day of voting at one of his seaside villas (6). Francesco Rutelli, leader of the opposition’s main centrist party, the Daisy Alliance, upset his colleagues by saying he also intended to abstain. Opposition leader Romano Prodi did vote in the referendum, but rejected calls to indicate how he voted. President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi took the same approach. After the votes had been counted, Prodi judged that it was a referendum on ‘a profound issue reflecting our intimate beliefs: we didn’t want it to have a political meaning’.

Those politicians who had the courage to treat the referendum as a political issue were condemned. Gianfranco Fini, the deputy prime minister, faced calls for his resignation for publicly stating that he would vote ‘yes’ for three of the four referendum reforms. The equal opportunities minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, also defied her party line to support a ‘yes’ vote, and is now hanging on to her job.

In general, political parties refused to formulate clear policies on the referendum, and told voters to decide according to their consciences. But the most significant factor in taking the politics out of the referendum was a decision by the Constitutional Court in January 2006. As I explained in an article in the Spring edition of the American journal Conscience (7), five questions were originally proposed for the fertility referendum – the fifth question was to be for the abolition of the Medically Assisted Reproduction Law. But the Constitutional Court decided that only questions on reforming parts of the law would be included. This effectively removed the key decision on the law, and narrowed the referendum to partial reforms.

Politics is supposed to be about political choice. But how can voters be expected to take an interest in politics when the most important choices are removed? I have read more than 300 articles on the fertility referendum over the past week, and not one of them criticised this decision by the Constitutional Court.

Instead of attempting to encourage political engagement, consulting the voters is being interpreted as a waste of time. After the failure of referenda to win over 50 per cent turnout over the past decade, some analysts are now arguing that the referendum ‘has outlived its usefulness’ (8). Following accusations of intervention by the Catholic Church, some are even suggesting that referenda are dangerously open to manipulation. ‘The referendum is a broken tool’, said Federico Geremicca in La Stampa, a daily Italian newspaper. ‘Worse, it’s a dangerous tool, not only for those who use it, but also for the cause in which it is deployed.’ Many politicians are now questioning whether they should organise more referenda.

One of the most bizarre episodes during the fertility referendum campaign was an argument over SMS messages. The government decided not to send every voter an SMS message to their mobile phones, reminding them to vote in the referendum, as it had done during the local government elections in April. This resulted in a legal challenge against the government by supporters of the ‘yes’ vote. But when political engagement becomes reduced to a legal battle over SMS messages, I’d be surprised if voters can stay awake, let alone be inspired to vote.

Dominic Standish writes for numerous media organisations, including the Italian National Press Agency, ANSA. Email

(1) A law too far, by Dominic Standish

(2) ‘Vatican victorious after boycott over fertility referendum’, Peter Popham, Independent, 14 June 2005

(3) ‘Catholic Church victorious in Italy fertility vote,’ Shasta Darlington, Reuters, 13 June 2005

(4) ‘Italian referendum defeated by low turnout,’ UPI news agency, 13 June 2005

(5) ‘Italians reject referendum on fertility’, Ian Fisher, International Herald Tribune, 14 June 2005

(6) ‘Assisted fertility referendum scuppered by low voter turnout,’ ANSA news agency, 13 June 2005

(7) ‘Italy: Fertile Ground for Reform,’ Dominic Standish, Conscience, Spring 2005

(8) ‘Vatican victorious after boycott over fertility referendum’, Peter Popham, Independent, 14 June 2005

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Topics Politics


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