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Italian Lawmakers Debate Legalizing Same-Sex Civil Unions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Italian lawmakers are debating a proposal to allow civil unions. That's considered a step forward for gay and lesbian couples. Italy is the only nation in Western Europe that has not legalized same-sex marriage or civil unions, a status that's considered just short of marriage. Needless to say, this bill has prompted plenty of debate, especially a provision involving adoptions. We're going to talk it all through with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, who is in Rome. And Sylvia, why has Italy moved more slowly than other nations?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, an Italian would reply that the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican casts a wide shadow over the Italian political world. When the government proposed a much milder civil unions bill in 2007, it was killed by stiff opposition from Italian bishops and Catholic groups. Ivan Scalfarotto, undersecretary for relations with Parliament, says there's a long tradition here of political identification with Catholic doctrine.

IVAN SCALFAROTTO: Catholic faithfuls are a constituency, and a large constituency. So I think there is a temptation from political parties to fish in that large pond.

POGGIOLI: But Scalfarotto, who's the first openly gay member of an Italian government, says Italy's now under outside pressure. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that it's in violation of the human rights convention guaranteeing respect for private and family life.

INSKEEP: OK, so Catholics have concerns - some, anyway - but Pope Francis has spoken differently about gays and lesbians. What does the Vatican say about this legislation?

POGGIOLI: Well, Pope Francis has sent mixed signals. He's never mentioned the civil unions bill, but last Friday he said there can be no confusion between the family envisioned by God and any other type of union. However, he was reportedly angry when the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, waded into the political debate. He openly backed a big anti-civil unions rally that's scheduled for Saturday.

INSKEEP: OK, we mentioned this provision on adoptions. What does it say and what's the controversy about it?

POGGIOLI: Well, the opponents, they claim it would encourage gay couples to go abroad to seek surrogate mothers. That's a practice that's outlawed here. At an LGBT rally last weekend, a young man, Andrea Piavani, said a much more derogatory term is used here for surrogacy.

ANDREA PIAVANI: We have this term which is utero in affitto, and it's like put on rent your uterus. Even in the way you speak you can see how we are far from achieving something that's really obvious.

POGGIOLI: Now, the interior minister, Angelino Alfano, is so opposed to the idea that he proposed that surrogate parents by treated like sex offenders.

INSKEEP: OK, so is the bill going to pass?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's uncertain. Today, the Senate begins the debate, but voting won't start until after Saturday's rally. If the turnout is huge, the bill's supporters might try to water it down. But that will infuriate the LGBT community. Undersecretary Scalfarotto says that Italy is not a society where gays and lesbians feel like equal citizens.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She's in Rome. Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.