By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin came under renewed fire on Thursday as she hosted a "Fertility Day" conference aimed at persuading couples to have more children.
An advertising campaign launched by the ministry had to be pulled at the start of the month after critics denounced it as sexist and another advert was withdrawn on Wednesday following accusations that it was racist.
Lorenzin put a brave face on the mishaps, and said it was vital to raise Italy's falling birth rate. Fewer babies were born in 2015 than in any year since the modern state was founded 154 years ago.
"What's more important than polemics are facts, and the facts are that we currently have 700,000 people who want to procreate and for various reasons cannot," she said at the conference.
Dozens of protesters shut out of the Rome conference by police accused the government of doing little to help couples have children, saying Italy needed more jobs, day care services and welfare support.
Italy's fertility rate last year was 1.35 children per woman, compared with an EU average of 1.6.
The idea that Italians will be persuaded to have more children by adverts appeared to be dismissed even by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who said earlier this month services and economic conditions, not advertisements, were needed.
Lorenzin is a member of a centrist bloc, considered close to the Catholic Church, that is allied with Renzi's Democratic Party.
Arturo Scotto, an opposition parliamentarian for the Italian Left party who took part in Thursday's protest, called for Lorenzin's resignation.
"The minister should listen to the reasons why many people are protesting against this campaign all over Italy," he said.
Events organized by the ministry to mark the first "Fertility Day", and counter-protests, were being held in other cities on Thursday.
The ministry's first ad campaign included a picture of a woman holding an hourglass next to the words: "Beauty has no age limit. Fertility does."
On Wednesday, the ministry put out another ad with the words, "the good habits to promote" over a picture of two white men with smiling white women clinging to their backs on a beach.
The bottom half of the ad read "the bad habits to leave behind" over a picture of youths smoking cannabis, one of them black.
The ad was denounced as racist on social media and by Italian rights groups, and withdrawn by the ministry hours after it was sent out.
"There was supposed to be a different photograph than the one that was used," Lorenzin said. "The person who switched the picture will be held responsible."
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; editing by Andrew Roche)