Italy's scientific community is furious over a Vatican campaign to undermine a referendum to repeal restrictive legislation on stem-cell research and artificial insemination.
Late this year, Italians will vote "yes" or "no" to the repeal of legislation passed by the Conservative Government of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Many scientists believe the legislation will drive young researchers abroad, devastating the country's research projects.
Italy requires a 50 per cent turnout for a referendum to be valid, and polls indicate that the majority would support repeal.
The Italian Bishops' Conference has told priests to instruct their parishioners to boycott the referendum. The Catholic establishment is also encouraging Catholic political leaders to make public statements against going to the polls. The Government could schedule the vote in June when schools are closed and many people will be on holiday, a tactic supporters of the referendum see as a response to Vatican pressure.
"Morally, the church's strategy is shameful," said Francesco Antinucci, a senior researcher in cognitive sciences at the Central Research Council and lecturer at Viterbo University. "Instead of telling Catholics to vote 'no', it tells them to sabotage a democratic function - political pragmatism worthy of Machiavelli."
Biologist and journalist Anna Meldolesi said: "Catholic organisations use every means possible to show that adult stem cells are as useful if not better than those from embryos, ignoring the anguish of parents with hereditary diseases. This is gross interference - the very secularity of Italy is at stake."
Astrophysicist Margherita Hack, one of Italy's most eminent scientists, declared: "This law is unjust and medieval, forbidding research that can lead to therapy for terrible diseases. You cannot impose Catholic morality on everyone. It is a law against science."