By Silvia Aloisi
ROME, Feb 13 (Reuters) - The confiscation of an aborted foetus by Italian police has rekindled a highly charged debate over abortion in Catholic Italy before national elections.
A 39-year-old Naples woman decided to have a termination in the 21st week of her pregnancy -- as allowed under Italian law -- after tests revealed the foetus had grave abnormalities.
When she returned to her hospital bed from the operating theatre on Monday, still dazed from the anaesthetic, police were waiting. They had been alerted by an anonymous phone caller who said the termination may have been carried out beyond the legal time limit.
The police interrogated the woman, identified by media only as Silvana, confiscated the dead foetus and took possession of her hospital chart.
"They bombarded me with questions. They gave me the third degree: what had happened, why did I have an abortion, who was the father? They even asked me if I paid the doctors," Silvana told La Repubblica daily.
Thirty years after abortion was legalised, the woman’s experience has angered many Italians but it has also added fuel to the debate before the elections on April 13-14 over whether laws on abortion are too liberal.
Analysts say the Roman Catholic Church, which opposed the 1978 change in the law, may appeal to Italians to vote for politicians who want to limit abortion legislation.
"The witch hunt is on," Health Minister Livia Turco said. "What happened mirrors the intolerable climate of tension surrounding one of the most dramatic choices for a woman."
Turco, a member of Romano Prodi’s outgoing centre-left government, is a staunch defender of the legislation which allows abortion on demand in the first 90 days of pregnancy.
SERIOUSLY MALFORMED Doctors can legally perform abortions until about the 24th week if the mother’s life is at risk or if the foetus is seriously malformed.
Dr. Francesco Leone, head of the state hospital ward where the woman had her operation, said the foetus had been diagnosed with Klinefelter’s syndrome -- a chromosome disorder that affects male sexual development and can lead to mental disabilities.
Critics, mainly on the centre right, argue the law should be made more restrictive in light of medical advances allowing the survival of some foetuses born before 24 weeks.
Opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, who has a clear lead in opinion polls, said this week the United Nations should vote for a moratorium on abortion just as the world body has on the death penalty.
Giuliano Ferrara, a prominent conservative journalist and former Berlusconi minister, is running for parliament with his own "List for Life" party. He argues abortion is "evil and should be eradicated".
The centre left is divided. Turco says abortions in Italy have halved in the past 25 years and the law should not be changed. But some centre-left Catholics have sided with Berlusconi and Ferrara and threatened to defect.
"I think the phone call to the police was made by someone at the hospital who thought we were killing a baby," Leone said. "I myself am against abortion but I think we are bordering on the farcical here." (Editing by Robert Woodward)