Friday, June 10, 2005

On a mission from God

Pssst...If you are looking for an Italian this Sunday they will all be at the beach. This being June, that's hardly surprising. Except that this time the Italians will be on a mission from God. The church has ordered all Catholics to head to the beach. Tutti al mare, as they've been saying from the pulpits. It's not quite clear, but some Italian catholics have interpreted this to mean they have a special dispensation to miss mass. What is clear is the Catholics can go to the beach as long as they do not vote this Sunday in a special referendum. This order has come down from on high: Papa Ratzinger himself has deputised Italian clergy. On this matter, they speak for him. Nobody is to vote. Capite?

Why all the fuss?

Up for vote on Sunday would be new measures to help couples have babies. It's a sad fact, but Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe. The classic Italian pasttime of cheek-pinching is in serious trouble, amici. Bambini are so noticeably scarce in some parts of Italy that I have noticed more than once adults stop everything to stare in amazement at the surprise appearance of so many little feet chaotically queuing (queuing was never a strong Italian trait) on the streets of Rome during school outings.

If Italy is so kid-poor, why would a measure designed to help women conceive draw such venom from the church? It all goes down to the treatment of embryos. The church believes the embryo, as you know, is a tiny microscopic person. And when you freeze that person you risk killing that person. The church would prefer babies be made the old-fashioned way, senza science. But, sadly, a lot of us need help. A lot of normal people, with good hearts and kind, loving intentions need to explore in vitro fertilization to start a family. The church understands this too, but it doesn't want us going crazy, freezing a whole batch of embryos. What would we do with the discarded embryos, they wonder (of course, rightly)? The church also doesn't want us scanning the embryos beforehand to check for defects. It also doesn't want anonymous donors to get involved.

This is a tricky dilemma. Italy is Catholic stronghold. More children is good for the church and definitely good for society -- but, and I'm guessing here, as long as those children aren't scientifically manipulated, or even, gasp, designer bambini. And thus, a referendum designed to help women get pregnant has turned into a debate that closely resembles the "a" word. Yep, pro-life and pro-choice advocates have jumped in. This debate rages on the TV nightly. Billboards across Rome implore people with rival messages: voti si, voti no and then there's non voti. In order to relax fertlisation restrictions, as the referendum is designed to do, more than 50 percent of eligible Italian voters must vote "yes". Thus, a non voti (or don't vote at all) is just as effective as a no vote, except that it sends a bigger message.

What I repeatedly fail to understand about all this is why such Hobbsian logic is always applied to this dilemma. Why does the government, the church, advocacy groups (the vaunted "they") insist that they know better than the individual (lowly old "me") on issues of conception?

I'm not eligible to vote. But I will be pondering this Sunday afternoon, at a beach noticeably devoid of kids.

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