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Photograph: EPA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO

A controversial law enshrining the rights of gay couples was approved Thursday by the Italian Senate, in a breakthrough towards its final approval that came after the bill was watered down to ease its passage.

The assembly backed it in a 173-71 vote, with zero abstentions, Senate President Pietro Grasso said.

"Today will remain in the chronicles of this legislature. And in the history of our country," Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wrote on Facebook after the result.

Italy, the last Western European nation with no laws on same-sex partnerships, is under pressure from its constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights to change the status quo. The Catholic Church and conservatives have opposed reform attempts.

"Legal experts who have analyzed the law say it is the most substantial change in family law since 1975," Daniele Viotti, an openly gay European Parliament member from Renzi's Democratic Party (PD), wrote on Facebook.

"In practical terms, our lives will change for the better," he added.

Same-sex couples will enjoy similar rights to married ones in terms of inheritance, housing and pension rights, hospital visits, and will also be able to take on the same surname. But they were denied limited adoption rights, to the chagrin of most gay activists.

The so-called stepchild adoption clause granted gay persons the right to adopt the children of their partners. Centrists in the PD-led government insisted on taking it out, along with references to fidelity vows, to differentiate the legal status of gay unions from heterosexual marriages.

"Common sense has won," said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, whose New Centre Right party asked for the changes. "Preventing two same-sex people from having a child, not allowed by nature, was a great gift to Italy. We stopped an anthropological revolution against nature," he added.

The PD negotiated a compromise with Alfano on Wednesday, after rowing with the opposition Five Star Movement (M5S). The ruling party said it could not trust the M5S' assurances that it would support a more ambitious bill.

The government sealed the compromise agreement by attaching a vote of confidence to the passage of the bill, meaning that it would have had to resign had it been rejected.

"It was a difficult but courageous choice to call a vote of confidence on the best possible text, given the conditions and [parliamentary] numbers," PD Senator Monica Cirinna, who sponsored the law, said before ballots were cast.

Thirty rights associations that support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) communities in Italy expressed outrage at the final outcome, and announced a protest rally in Rome on March 5.

"We did not wait 30 years for this," the groups wrote in a joint statement.

The law "completely ignores the existence and needs of the sons and daughters of homosexual couples," they wrote, and pledged to appeal to the courts for the recognition of adoption rights.

Thursday's vote ended Senate discussions that started in June 2013. The law is now set to pass to the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, for a much speedier examination that should allow the reform to enter the statute books within a few months.

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