In Europe, Italy now a guardian of embryo rights
Monday, Italian voters rejected easing a law that limits fertility treatment.
Spurred by an emboldened Roman Catholic Church, Italian voters Monday effectively gave their seal of approval to a law that gives embryos the status of "full human beings."Skip to next paragraph
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In a controversial referendum aimed at relaxing a 2004 law that tightened restrictions on fertility treatment, and bans cloning and embryo stem-cell research, most Italians appeared to heed the Vatican's call to boycott the vote. Polls estimated that only 26 percent of 50 million eligible voters turned out. To be valid, at least half of the electorate had to vote on the referendum.
Critics fear that the law may pave the way for an attempt to reopen the debate on whether abortion should be legal in this country.
Italians, while nominally Catholic, tend to ignore church doctrine regarding family life. They voted en masse to approve laws on abortion and divorce passed in the 1970s. And today, they are among the most habitual users of contraception in Europe.
By giving the embryo the same status as a person, the legislation, known as the Medically Assisted Reproduction Law (MARL), appears to contradict existing abortion law. Embryos created in vitro cannot be screened for genetic disorders. Nor can they be destroyed in the lab. That, critics worry, could force women to implant diseased embryos that they eventually abort.
"It is a disgrace," says Dr. Giovanni Monni, who heads one of Italy's leading fertility clinics on Sardinia. "Italy must be the only country where you cannot destroy an embryo inside a test tube but you can destroy it once it's inside a woman."
Now that the law has been upheld by the public, abortion-rights campaigners fear it is only a matter of time before abortion comes up for debate in parliament. MARL supporters insist the law was drawn up to fill a legislation vacuum on fertility treatment in Italy - not to reopen the abortion debate. Analysts say there is likely to be much more public resistance to any attempt to tighten restrictions on abortion.
"It might seem logical that if you protect the embryo you should protect the fetus," says Professor Silvio Ferrari, who heads the Observatory on Freedom and Religious Institutions in Milan, Italy. "It is probable that in coming months or years there will be an attempt to restrict the regulations on abortion. But ... if I had to bet on it, I'd say [that on abortion] things will stay the same."
The numbers of couples travelling abroad for more flexible treatment is estimated to have tripled since the law came into effect last March.
The law submitted to the referendum puts Italy clearly out of step with the rest of Europe, although different governments on the continent have taken very different approaches to the issues of fertility treatment and embryo research.
"This is a very vivid and difficult subject of discussion," says Laurence Lwoff, an expert at the Council of Europe, the European human and social rights organization. "The picture is very diverse from country to country."
But on one issue, the donation of sperm and eggs to infertile couples, Italian law is more restrictive than anywhere else in Europe but Germany, Norway, and Turkey, according to a survey by the British Human Fertilization and Embryology Agency, a government watchdog.
Only three European countries allow therapeutic cloning of embryos, for medical purposes - Britain, Belgium, and Sweden.
Research groups elsewhere in Europe decried the low Italian turnout Monday, which meant that the current law stands. "These are draconian laws that will have disastrous results," says Margaret Willson, spokeswoman for the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology.