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Pope Blasts Abortion Pills, Gay Unions

Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday that doctors should not give women the abortion pill because it hides the "gravity" of taking a human life, and also said it was wrong to give legal recognition to gay unions.

Benedict reaffirmed church teaching on both abortion and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman during an audience with officials from Rome and its surrounding Lazio region — touching on two major issues on Italy's political agenda before general elections in April.

Benedict said pregnant women, particularly those in difficult situations, needed concrete help, and said officials should "avoid introducing drugs that hide in some way the gravity of abortion, as a choice against life."

Abortion up to the end of the third month of pregnancy was legalized in predominantly Catholic Italy in 1978, after a long battle between the Vatican and secular forces. Recently, the abortion pill RU-486 became available in parts of Italy on an experimental basis.

The Italian Bishops' Conference has mounted a renewed fight against abortion and the RU-486 pill, turning abortion into a campaign issue for the first time since Italians upheld the law in a 1981 referendum sponsored by the church in a bid to overturn it.

In other comments, Benedict stressed that marriage between man and woman was the cornerstone of society and not some "casual sociological construction" that could be replaced.

"It's a serious error to obscure the value and function of the legitimate family founded on matrimony, attributing to other forms of unions improper legal recognition, for which there really is no social need," he said.

Italy, where Vatican influence is strong, does not recognize unions of unmarried couples. Gay and lesbian associations have been pushing for common law couples to have legal recognition in hopes the move might pave the way for granting legal status to gay couples.

The center-left candidate for premier, Romano Prodi, has said his coalition would give legal status to unmarried couples if it wins the April 9 vote, but he has not supported legalizing gay marriage.

The president of the Italian Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, has said that common-law status might be applied to offer some legal protection to unmarried heterosexual couples — offering a rare exception to the church's condemnation of de facto unions.

But he has said any such protection should stop short of envisioning "something similar to a marriage."