Thousands of demonstrators take part in the Family Day rally at the Circo Massimo in central Rome, on January 30, 2016.
The Family day was organised to protest against a bill to recognize civil unions, including same-sex ones currently under examination at the Italian Parliament.   / AFP / ANDREAS SOLARO        (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Large crowd marches against same-sex unions
01:17 - Source: CNN

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NEW: An event organizer decries having surrogates birth gay couple's children, calling it "the sale of the uterus"

A large crowd packs Rome's Circus Maximus to speak out against a proposal to make same-sex unions legal in Italy

Italy is sharply divided on the proposed legislation; most other European nations have similar, if not more sweeping, laws

Rome CNN  — 

On Saturday, it was their turn – to speak out, en masse, against a proposal in Italy to legalize same-sex civil unions and adoptions by same-sex couples.

One weekend after demonstrators staged rallies in more than 80 cities to show support for the legislation, a large crowd packed Rome’s Circus Maximus ruins to express the opposite view.

“We are here in Rome to defend the family, not only our family but all the families in Italy and all the families in the world,” Armando Mantuano said. “I hope that we defend the children, because they deserve a father and a mother.”

Mantuano had plenty of company. Organizers claimed more than 2 million in attendance; a survey of the crowd suggests a far lower figure, perhaps tens of thousands, though no official figure was immediately released. Their hope was to influence legislators ahead of next week’s parliamentary debate on the proposed law.

Every other major Western European country already has legally recognized same-sex partnerships – civil unions or marriages – and corresponding adoptions. But it’s no sure thing this will happen soon in Italy, a country with deep Catholic roots.

Saturday’s crowd, consisting of everyone from nuns to small children, listened and often cheered as speakers talked about their desire to keep marriage between one man and one woman. They were often even more adamant about not letting homosexual couples adopt children, with organizer Masimo Gandolfini decrying what he called “the sale of a uterus.”

“A woman is not a furnace where children are made,” Gandolfini said. “And you cannot transform parenthood into a right.”

Alessandro Margiotta, a doctor, woke up at 5 a.m. to travel all the way from Rimini to Rome to join the throng and drive home this point.

“We want to say ‘No’ to … civil unions,” Margiotta told CNN. “[And] we think [children] have the principal right to have one mother and one father, not two fathers or two mothers.”

Gay couple taken back by debate

One distinct possibility is that the existing legislation is split up. That could mean allowing legal recognition of same-sex couples for taxation and other purposes, but not to let them adopt children, which is driving some of the fiercest opposition.

Revising the law in this way would be no comfort to Dario De Gregorio and Andrea Rubera.

Dario De Gregorio and Andrea Rubera smile with their three children.

They were married in Canada in 2009, and both their names are on the birth certificates of their three children, all of whom were born thanks to a surrogate mother, anonymous egg donor and both of their sperm. Their hope now is to have officials in Italy, where they now live, recognize both men as their children’s parents, not just one or the other.

Rubera has been taken back by the venom that’s been directed against gay and lesbian couples amid the debate.

“They portray us as robbers or kidnappers, using words like ‘womb for rent, uterus for rent,’” he told CNN. “Saying you stole your kids, you stole your kids from their mother. You denied to your kids to have a mother, you bought your kids from the supermarket like watermelons.”

He’s hopeful that Italy passes the proposed law but resigned to the idea that the country is not yet ready for full-on same-sex marriage.

“I think we have to fight in the future for equal marriage,” Rubera said. “But at the moment, I think civil unions would be a good first step with stepchild adoption.”

Gay dads hope Italy approves law

In the Catholic Church’s backyard

While there’s no denying the gay rights movement’s momentum elsewhere in Europe, Italy is a unique case because of its position as the cradle of Roman Catholicism.

Around the world, the Catholic Church has been among the most outspoken entities in support of traditional marriages and opposition to those between two men or two women. While Pope Francis hasn’t weighed in personally on Italy’s debate, it is notable that his Church’s headquarters, the Vatican, is literally surrounded by Rome.