The Italian interior ministry announced only 25.9 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot, in a resounding defeat for supporters of change.
The strongly Catholic nation appears to have responded to a call from Italian bishops, endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI, to boycott the poll.
In his first foray into Italian politics since he was elected in April, the Pope threw his support behind bishops leading the campaign for a boycott, calling them “truly good pastors” who wanted to “enlighten the choices of Catholics.”
Priests had used pulpits to rally the faithful behind the slogan: “Life cannot be put to a vote: Don’t vote.”
The current law, passed last year, is the most conservative in Europe. It bans egg and sperm donations as well as embryo research and freezing, and allows only three eggs at a time to be fertilized in the test tube.
The new law was drafted amid concerns Italy had become one of the most liberal countries in the world in the field of assisted conception.
Before the law was passed, one fertility doctor was able to help women in their 60s to become pregnant.
The new law that tightly restricts fertility treatments and techniques was met with a wave of opposition and four million signatures were collected for a petition urging a court action to have the most restrictive changes subjected to a referendum.
However, this opposition appears to have been quashed in the emotional debate that has surrounded the referendum.
Those who did actually make it to polling stations predictably voted overwhelmingly to dismantle the law. According to partial results, between 75 and 89 pc voted “Yes” on the four sections.
The debate has been the most emotional since divorce and abortion were legalized in the 1970s — laws that the Church tried to have overturned with national referendums.
The number of infertile couples seeking fertility help abroad has tripled since the law was approved.
The “Vote Yes” campaign won support from much of the centre-left opposition, doctors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists and movie stars such as Monica Bellucci, who famously asked: “What do politicians and priests know about my ovaries?”
Some fear the law legalizing abortion may now come under pressure, since it is at odds with provisions of the fertility legislation that recognize the legal rights of embryos.
“Attention will now turn to abortion,” said Equal Opportunities Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo.
“The inconsistencies between the two laws (on reproduction and on abortion) are enormous. I expect in the short-to-medium term someone will take the initiative.”
But with a general election due in the next 11 months, it is unlikely that lawmakers will modify either law in a hurry.