When a new law on assisted reproduction for infertile couples passed through the Italian parliament in February 2004 it was fiercely opposed by left-wing politicians for being illiberal and anti- feminist. In the hope of overturning the law these political groups soon gathered the necessary signatures for a referendum. Italys constitutional court has now agreed that four out of five questions can go to a vote, rejecting the fifth, a request from the Radical party, to allow voters the possibility of overturning the whole law.

In a referendum voters are only allowed to choose whether to uphold existing legislation or not. In this case they will be asked to vote yes or no on the following aspects of the law.

Do they agree or not with the article in the law that the use of embryos for cloning or scientific experimentation of any sort should be banned?

Do they agree or not that only three fertilized embryos should be implanted into the uterus at each attempt, with all other embryos being destroyed, except in very specific documented cases?

Do they agree or not that equal rights should be given to the couple and to the fertilised embryo?

Do they agree or not that assisted fertilization should use only the partners eggs and sperm and not those of a third party?

To be valid a referendum in Italy must have a quorum of 50 per cent of the electorate, plus one vote. It is expected that this referendum will be held in May or early June, perhaps even after the schools have closed and when voters are already going on holiday. There is therefore a danger that a quorum will not be reached. In fact no referendum held in Italy since 1997 has obtained a quorum. Opponents of the vote, which include politicians in both the government and opposition parties, are already calling for widespread abstentions.

The only way that the referendum can be stopped is if the present law is amended. However the government, with full support from the Roman Catholic Church, is against changing the law and many politicians in opposition parties are divided on the issue.