Italy's Embryo War; a Pizzeria Apart

Both Sides Brace for a Life-and-Death Referendum

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 2, 2005 ( The battle lines have been drawn. The war? The Italian referendum to Law 40 which governs artificial procreation and embryo testing. The vote will be held June 12-13 and will contain four proposals to amend an earlier law.

In 2004, Italy, formerly a bioethical “Wild West” because of the absence of any laws governing artificial procreation, passed Law 40 which, among other things, prohibits the screening of embryos and the creation of more embryos than needed for implantation as well as human cloning.

Recently several political parties along with special-interest groups have rallied opposition to the law, branding it as overly restrictive. By procuring the necessary 4 million signatures, they succeeded in having modifications to the law put to popular referendum.

Referendum voting in Italy requires that those in favor must turn out to vote while those against abstain from voting. To alter the law, 50% of the eligible voters will have to vote in favor of canceling one or more of the following points:

1) Restrictions on clinical and experimental research with embryos.
2) Legal restrictions on artificial insemination, such as the three-embryo limit on those created in vitro.
3) The rights of the one conceived so that they are subject to the rights of those already born.
4) The ban on heterologous insemination, namely, with the participation of a third person other than the couple

The third question in particular has the pro-abortion forces running scared, and their attack has been ruthless and relentless.

This camp is led by the Radical Party, whose president, Marco Pannella, is well known for his anti-Catholicism. Carrying banners emblazoned with slogans such as “No Taliban, No Vatican, Referendum!” he managed to drum up the signatures to allow for the vote.

The Radicals are flanked by the Communist Party, who have plastered the city with red posters, glaring like pustules, announcing “Liberty!” with the anachronistic hammer-and-sickle emblem for good measure. They are led by Fausto Bertinotti, called by many the “cashmere Communist,” not so much for his smooth methods as for his expensive choice of attire.

Several starlets have been recruited to plug the referendum as well. Monica Bellucci and Sabrina Ferilli, both considerably more clothed than Italians are used to seeing them, stare solemnly from billboards and Web sites, announcing that Law 40 “persecutes women.”

The campaigning reached its culmination on May 31 in Campo dei Fiori where entertainment stars and politicians mingled with the crowds in Rome’s “party piazza” to enlighten the Italians. Perhaps they should have held the event in the Colosseum, where the “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses) formula was invented. Certainly it would be appropriate in regards to the waste of human life.

The parties of the right, Trifoglio and Alleanza Nationale, have parried well, posting slogans such as “La Vita Non Si Vota!” — life is not to be put to a vote. They are organizing conferences and debates, to discuss all the facets of the referendum.

A heartening sight is the energy with which Italian Catholics, regardless of their political leanings, have thrown themselves into the fray on behalf of human life. The young people of Azione Giovane posted signs of the same candid white that they used in their moving salutes to Pope John Paul II, to remind passers-by that these are human lives at stake.

One intrepid young man stood alone all day Sunday in a major piazza under the blazing sun, answering questions about the referendum and pointing out the dangers of voting Yes on June 12.

The Italian bishops’ conference, led by its president, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar of Rome, has galvanized the parishes into action, organizing meetings, conferences and prayer groups to counter the referendum.

Rome’s own bishop, Pope Benedict XVI, praised the work of the prelates in the synod hall on Monday and openly backed the abstention from voting, teaching that a human being “can never be reduced to a means.”

Some causes are worth fighting for, and if respect for life isn’t, nothing is.

* * *

Where Down Is In

A far more quiet affirmation of life has been taking place in the Rome suburbs.

An enterprising Roman family cooked up an idea to find jobs for their son, who is affected by Down syndrome, or Trisomy 21, and his friends. They opened a little, hidden-away pizzeria where the kids could work as waiters. The eatery, in the Via dei Sulpici in the Appia/Tuscolana area, has turned into a bustling, busy locale.

I went to try it out for myself last weekend, bringing my toddler son, Joshua, who also has Down syndrome. We came into a cheery, lively entrance, decorated with photographs of Down children posing with various Italian celebrities.

Although the restaurant was full, the staff found time to exchange pleasantries and to fete Joshua. After dinner I spoke to the woman who started this initiative, Augustina Balsamo, mother of 21-year-old Valerio (our waiter), and president of the Cooperativa Sociale Girasoli.

“I created this cooperative six years ago to try and help young people like Valerio to find work and to develop skills to allow them to find jobs on their own,” Balsamo explained.

“Then we hit on the idea of a restaurant which would not only give the kids work, but also integrate them socially while encouraging people not to feel awkward around people with disabilities. This is our fifth year in business,” she added proudly.

Valerio, Viviana and Claudio serve at the tables, sometimes up to a 100 people a night. How do people react to being waited on by someone with Down’s syndrome? I asked.

“We’re pretty out of the way, so most of the people who come here know what we’re about and come because they’re curious or they want to help or just because they like the good mood and good company,” Balsamo replied.

“A couple of times people just happened in and when they saw that the waiters were all Down, they got up and left,” she said. “Sometimes you have to be patient with people who don’t understand.”

More brightly, Balsamo remembered that several times “people had come and eaten without realizing they had been served by someone with Down syndrome.”

I asked her how she as a mother felt about this whole experiment.

“Great,” she answered, “they’re more mature, they’ve learned responsibility, they communicate better and they have dreams and plans for the future.”

She went on: “The most successful part has been the interaction between the so-called normal people who work here and the kids. Everyone is natural, easygoing and the staff has learned that they’re just regular kids.”

“I think this place is important because here, you see what would usually be hidden away. These are nice, friendly, sincere kids, why should they be kept out of view of the public?” Balsamo asked. “It’s not so bad to be served by a Down waiter, is it?”

Then she interrogated me. “How was the food? Did you like it?” I told her (honestly) that I had enjoyed my dinner, as had my family.

Balsamo relaxed and smiled. “Very good,” she said. “One may be sympathetic or want to help us out, but the bottom line is, if the food isn’t good they won’t be back.”

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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