Abortion is playing an important early role in Italy's election campaign, with front-runner Silvio Berlusconi endorsing a universal moratorium and a prominent journalist on Tuesday announcing an anti-abortion ticket.
Berlusconi told the weekly Tempi magazine that he believed the United Nations should recognize as a human right the right to life from "conception until natural death" - using the same terminology the Vatican uses to express its opposition to abortion.
The former premier stressed, however, that his center-right allies were free to decide on the matter according to their own conscience.
Abortion in state hospitals until the end of the third month of pregnancy has been legal in Italy since 1978. Abortion after three months is allowed only when the pregnancy is deemed a "grave danger" to the woman's life.
In mid-December, a prominent conservative journalist, Giuliano Ferrara, reopened the debate on abortion in Italy by proposing a universal moratorium. The proposal was immediately backed by top Catholic Church officials, including Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome.
Ferrara, who is close to Berlusconi, launched his appeal on the pages of his conservative Il Foglio newspaper a day after the U.N. General Assembly approved a nonbinding resolution, pushed by Italy, calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.
Ferrara reasoned that if the United Nations could approve a moratorium on executions, it should approve one on abortions since millions of "innocents" are killed each year in what he called the "supreme scandal of our time."
Asked by Tempi magazine if he supported Ferrara's proposal, Berlusconi replied: "I think that recognizing the right to life from conception to natural death is a principle that the U.N. could make its own, just as it did with the moratorium on the death penalty."
Center-left leaders have resoundingly opposed Ferrara's call and rejected any change to Italy's existing law.
Italians upheld the current law in a 1981 referendum proposed by Catholic forces seeking to overturn the legislation in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. Since then, the issue has occasionally reappeared in the political debate, but to date there has been little public mobilization to modify the law.
Polls indicate Berlusconi's forces are likely to win April 13-14 parliamentary elections, meaning the issue could remain on the table in the next legislature if Ferrara's proposal gains momentum.
On Tuesday, Ferrara announced he would be running for office on an anti-abortion ticket, and confirmed his plans even after Berlusconi spoke out against the initiative and dashed Ferrara's hopes of joining the center-right coalition.
Berlusconi insisted on a TV show Tuesday evening that the issue should be left to the individual conscience of citizens, and lamented the formation of electoral tickets on the center-right at a time when he is trying to aggregate forces under his "Freedom People" list.
"I will run alone; Berlusconi doesn't believe in this fight enough," Ferrara, who once served as a minister for Berlusconi, was quoted as saying by the ANSA and Apcom agencies.
Livia Turco, the health minister in the outgoing center-left government, has said public debate about abortion was fine, but that changing the law was not. The law, she said, has proven effective, both in reducing the number of abortions and in saving mothers' lives, because it has effectively ended clandestine abortions.
In 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, 136,715 women had abortions, compared with 234,801 in 1982. There are about 58 million people in Italy.