Abortion becomes major issue in Italian election

An increasingly influential Catholic Church has turned abortion into an election issue again in Italy, more than two decades after it was legalized following a fierce battle that pitted the Vatican against lay forces. The procedure was legalized in 1978, and Italians voted to uphold the law three years later in a Vatican-backed referendum that church leaders had hoped would lead to it being banned.

Now, Italian bishops are aggressively denouncing abortion ahead of next year's parliamentary election, sending both left- and right-wing political parties scrambling to come up with incentives to persuade pregnant women to have their babies.

The center-left opposition Margherita party is proposing an amendment to the 2006 national budget that would have the government pay Ђ250 (US$295) a month, starting from the sixth month of pregnancy until birth, to housewives, unemployed women or women who don't have maternity benefits and whose total household income is less than Ђ40,000 (US$47,000). For single women earning less than Ђ25,000 (about US$29,400) a year, the payment would be Ђ350 (US$412) a month starting with the third month of pregnancy.

The party came forward with its plan, which had reached committee level in the Chamber of Deputies Friday, was rushing to respond to a government proposal in the budget to pay a bonus to women who give birth. While the idea of a baby-bonus is not new in Italy, a country with one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, tying it to an anti-abortion initiative is.

The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano recently condemned abortion as going "against woman's dignity, against a person's rights." This week, a parliamentary committee agreed to demands by the center-right Union of Christian Democrats to create a commission to examine how Italy's abortion law is being applied. The 1978 law makes abortion during the first three months of pregnancy legal. "Abortion has been a non-issue for more than 30 years, and now it's become hot for two reasons," said James Walston, a professor of politics at the American University of Rome. "It takes the heat off the economy, and that's useful. And legal abortion embarrasses (candidate for premier Romano) Prodi, because as a Catholic he can't say he's in favor of it, and as a member of the center-left he can't say no."

More importantly, in the eyes of politicians, the Vatican's support has grown increasingly crucial to win elections. "They control about 3 percent of the vote, as in, 'Who do I vote for, Father?"' Walston said. But the Church influences much more, reports the AP. N.U.

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