Issue of March, 27, 2004
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Accents
Law on Assisted Reproduction Divides Italy
By Francesca Colombo

A new Italian law, which bans experiments involving human embryos, is a violation of the rights of infertile couples and of scientific freedom, say critics. The fate of the 24,000 frozen embryos that exist in Italy is uncertain.

MILAN, Italy, (Tierramérica).- Having children is now an uphill battle for infertile couples in Italy, say activists from a range of organizations, since the approval last month of the Assisted Procreation Law, which defines embryos as individuals with rights.

Supported by the Vatican and by some leftist parties, along with the governing right-wing party, the new law is intended to protect the lives of embryos, and has banned freezing, experimenting, destroying or cloning them.

In the 323 assisted fertilization clinics in Italy, there are currently 24,000 frozen embryos belonging to approximately 5,000 couples, according to data from the Superior Institute of Health.

Around 70 percent of those couples intended to use them to try to have more children.

The new law -- 18 articles long and in debate since 2001 -- only allows artificial insemination for heterosexual and married couples.

The use of semen or ova from third parties is not permitted, and has been banned for single people or same-sex couples.

Furthermore, the new legislation allows each couple to produce a maximum of just three embryos for assisted procreation, given that it would be problematic to preserve larger quantities now that embryo freezing is banned.

But only 60 percent of the ova fertilized with sperm become embryos, and "the law is not applicable," says Elena Montecchi, deputy leader of the parliamentary bloc of the opposition party Democrats of the Left, and coordinator of the working group on the legislation.

The law "blocs women from access to assisted procreation, forces the doctor to use only three embryos -- if one is deformed it doesn't matter -- and lastly it is a violation of scientific freedom and the technological development of the field of reproduction," she told Tierramérica.

Mónica Soldano, director of the non-governmental group Madre Probeta, also condemns the law. "It doesn't recognize our freedoms and rights, and it is useless and harmful to infertile women and men. With three embryos you can't even conduct genetic tests prior to implantation, to avoid serious and hereditary diseases," she said in a Tierramérica interview.

They will appeal to the Supreme Court to declare the new law unconstitutional, Soldano said.

There are around 50,000 infertile couples in Italy, and an estimated 40 percent of them have sought medical assistance in order to have children. They go to private clinics that charge up to 8,600 dollars, or to state-run clinics, which charge 185 dollars per consultation. An estimated 6,000 children have been born in Italy as a result of the various assisted fertility techniques.

Manuela, 38, suffers a hereditary and degenerative neurological disease. She wanted to become a mother by utilizing the ova of another woman, but now she will have to seek that option in a different country.

Paula Napolitano is also 38 and her husband is sterile. She has tried seven different in vitro fertilization techniques, but to no avail. She will not be able to seek further attention in Italy.

"The (Roman Catholic) Church does not want us to try with the ova or sperm of other people, because they say it would destroy the family. But that isn't so, and we won't be made to feel guilty for wanting to bring our children into the world," Napolitano said.

According to the new Italian law, the use of third party ova or sperm would bring fines of 370,000 to 740,000 dollars, and 490,000 dollars in fines for fertility assistance for minors, singles or homosexuals.

Buying or selling embryos would be penalized with three months to two years in prison, and attempts at human cloning would cost 10 to 20 years behind bars.

"The business will end and only the best gynecologists will survive. It was very easy to set up a fertility lab, because there was no regulation," lawmaker Dorina Bianchi told Tierramérica, in defense of the new legislation.

"In two or three years," the maximum number of embryos per assisted couple could be increased, "or give greater opportunities to couples with hereditary pathologies," she said.

The law "was necessary because there was a great deal of confusion and there were excesses. But we hoped for something better, because this legislation impedes certain types of fertilization, limits the techniques and blocks the testing of new technologies," acknowledged Giussepe de Amato, director of the in vitro fertilization department at the Instituto de Bellis.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Healthy has designated a special commission to determine the fate of the frozen embryos currently being stored at the fertility clinics.

The commission is expected to take at least three months to reach a decision. The possibilities include returning the embryos to their owners or keeping them frozen in an enormous crypt of ice in Milan, and eventually destroy them once the time for their viability has passed.

* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributor.

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