Italy's highest academic panel, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, has voted heavily in favour of research using stem cells from previously frozen embryos.
The vote, by 58 to eight, with 14 abstentions, came amid tension over a referendum that seeks to repeal Italy's ultra-restrictive legislation on stem-cell research and fertilisation techniques.
The legislation, strongly influenced by Catholic teaching, was passed by Silvio Berlusconi's Government and is being furiously defended by the Catholic Church, which has called on Catholics to boycott the referendum in the hope that the 50 per cent quorum will not be reached.
The referendum is as much about Italy's independence from the Church as it is about ethics. It comes after a wave of emotion over the death of Pope John Paul II.
The estimated 30,000 frozen embryos to which the Accademia refers date from before the passing of the legislation, which establishes that only three ovules can be removed from a woman and fertilised and that all must be reimplanted in the uterus.
The Accademia has in the past been noted for its reluctance to express itself on controversial issues. But in this case, where pro-referendum scientific experts have been locking horns with Catholic scientific experts on the issue of when human life begins, they felt obliged to take a stand.
Their stand remains cautious. The verdict states that "extra frozen embryos (left over from attempts at artificial insemination before the new legislation came into effect, and destined for certain death) should not be lost, but used to increase scientific knowledge to alleviate the suffering produced by degenerative diseases".
This statement and its timing have irritated the Catholic camp. Carlo Casini, who has taught law at various Catholic universities and is president of the Movement for Life, said "the Accademia's document seems to have the purpose of influencing public opinion, not promoting science".
But Carlo Alberto Redi, a biologist member of the Accademia, replied:"On a delicate issue such as this, it is not in good taste to try to make headlines. First one has to know what one is talking about. The embryo is one phase of development. It is not an individual, not one of us."