After a bitter and drawn-out fight, Italy's senators voted Thursday to grant legal recognition to same-sex couples. The nation is the last in Western Europe to take such action.
But whatever victory came in the vote was denounced quickly by LGBT activists who said the legislation had been grossly watered down with the elimination of a clause that would have cleared a path for gay adoption. One group described the vote as an "ugly page in the history of our country's civil rights."
After promising to respond to pressure from the European Court of Human Rights to recognize gay unions, Matteo Renzi's reform-minded government won the Senate vote by 173 votes to 71 late Thursday. The bill now goes to the lower chamber of Parliament, where Renzi's more solid majority should ensure passage.
But to win enough votes in the Senate, Renzi needed backing from Catholic members of his own Democratic Party, as well from his conservative coalition partner Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who forced the adoption clause to be scratched. It would have allowed one partner in a same-sex union to adopt the biological child of the other partner.
"We have blocked a revolution that would have been against nature and anthropology," Alfano said on Thursday before the vote. Catholic opponents of the bill also introduced wording to distinguish gay unions from heterosexual marriages.
Pope Francis has not directly intervened in the debate, but Catholic politicians mounted a furious campaign against the adoption clause, arguing that children need a mother and a father.
On Thursday, a group of 28 Italian LGBT groups denounced the bill as a sellout, stating, "We didn't wait 30 years for this." Activists staged a noisy demonstration outside the Senate on Wednesday and vowed further protests. Same-sex couples who seek to have children through surrogate mothers are currently forced to go abroad because the practice is illegal in Italy.
"We heard some horrible speeches in the Senate about genetically modified children during the debates," said Flavio Romani, the head of gay rights group Arcigay.
To keep left-wing supporters in his own party from abandoning the bill, Renzi turned the vote into a confidence vote, meaning a defeat would have forced the government to resign.
Monica Cirinna, the Democratic Party senator who prepared the bill, said that dropping adoption was "a serious damage" to the legislation. "But it's still a good law and puts us on par with Europe," she said.
The last government in Italy to try to introduce gay unions, in 2007, failed amid widespread protest led by Catholic bishops, and later collapsed because of internal bickering, partly prompted by the bill.
Cirinna noted that the new legislation does permit judges the discretion to allow partners in same sex unions to adopt their partners' children.
"The Senate has decided not to decide and leave it to the judges, who are luckily coming round to our way and Europe's way of thinking," said Romani. "The end result is that Italy's politicians have missed the train again."
Senators belonging to the anti-establishment Five Star Movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo pledged to back adoptions, ensuring the clause would pass, but backed out at the last moment, drawing accusations they had sought to sabotage Renzi.
That left Renzi depending on Alfano, a skilled political operator who was groomed for politics by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
One government official, who declined to be named, said the watered-down bill was not a defeat for Renzi, claiming he had sensed that Italian voters were not comfortable with gay adoption.
"Renzi may now emerge unscathed," he said.
Kington is a special correspondent.