Meanwhile, a prominent conservative newspaper editor who reopened the debate announced his candidacy for parliament Tuesday and said he plans to run on an anti-abortion platform.
Abortion through the end of the third month of pregnancy has been legal in Italy's state hospitals since 1978. Abortion after three months is allowed only when the pregnancy is deemed a "grave danger" to the woman's life.
Italians upheld the law in a 1981 referendum proposed by Roman Catholic groups that had hoped to overturn the legislation. Since then, the issue has occasionally reappeared in the political debate, but there has been little public mobilization to modify the law.
Berlusconi recently told the weekly magazine Tempi that he believes the United Nations should recognize there is a human right to life from "conception until natural death" - using the same terminology the Vatican uses to express its opposition to abortion.
But he said on an Italian television show Tuesday that the issue should be left to the individual conscience of citizens.
Prominent conservative journalist Giuliano Ferrara, who is close to Berlusconi and was a minister in his conservative government at one time, announced Tuesday that he would run for parliament.
Ferrara reopened the Italian debate on abortion in December by proposing a universal moratorium in his newspaper, Il Foglio, after the U.N. General Assembly called for a moratorium on the death penalty. His proposal was immediately backed by top Catholic Church officials, including Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome.
Ferrara reasoned that if the U.N. could approve a moratorium on executions, it should approve one on abortions, arguing that millions of "innocents" are killed each year in what he called the "supreme scandal of our time."
Asked by Tempi if he supported Ferrara's proposal, Berlusconi replied, "I think that recognizing the right to life from conception to natural death is a principle that the U.N. could make its own, just as it did with the moratorium on the death penalty."
Center-left leaders resoundingly oppose Ferrara's call and reject any change to Italy's existing law.
Polls indicate Berlusconi's forces are likely to win the April 13-14 parliamentary ballot, meaning the issue could remain on the table in the next legislature if Ferrara's proposal gains momentum. But Ferrara won't be part of Berlusconi's coalition, the journalist said.
"I will run alone; Berlusconi doesn't believe in this fight enough," Ferrara was quoted as saying by the ANSA and Apcom agencies.
Livia Turco, the health minister in the outgoing center-left government, has said public debate about abortion is fine, but that changing the law is not. The law, she said, has proven effective, both in reducing the number of abortions and in saving mothers' lives, because it has effectively ended clandestine abortions.
In 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, 136,715 women had abortions in Italy, compared with 234,801 in 1982. There are about 58 million people in Italy.