Fertility Law Divides Italians

A referendum has been called on whether to repeal a measure that strictly limits medically aided conception. Pope tells voters to stay home.

By Tracy Wilkinson

Los Angeles Times

June 11, 2005

ROME — Mika Hayama got in just under the wire, becoming pregnant a couple of months before Italy's highly restrictive law on medically assisted reproduction went into effect last year.

Francesca Pietra was not as lucky. She plans to join a wave of "procreation tourism," as it is called here, and travel to another European country where she can pay for a donated egg she hopes will produce a baby.

"This is the only chance I have," Pietra said.

Italians go to the polls Sunday and Monday to vote on a referendum that would repeal the fertility measure, which places severe limits on how women can use modern science to get pregnant. The law, approved overwhelmingly by Roman Catholic politicians in Parliament, also bans research on embryonic cells, denies in vitro fertilization to all but a few women, and forbids the donation of sperm and eggs and the freezing of embryos.

Opponents say Italy, after years of being the "Wild West" of reproductive science, now has the most inhibiting law in Europe.

The bitterly contested referendum has redrawn traditional political lines in Italy and led to the Roman Catholic Church's intervention in balloting in ways not seen here for decades.

Pope Benedict XVI joined the Italian bishops conference in calling on voters to boycott the vote.

"It is very important," Benedict said Monday, "that Christian families speak out publicly on the inviolability of human life from conception to its natural term, the unique and irreplaceable value of the family based on marriage."

It was the fourth time in less than two weeks that the new pope had addressed the subject, leaving no doubt about his instructions to voters.

For the referendum to pass, more than half the electorate must cast ballots, so abstaining from the vote is the easiest way to ensure the law stays in place.

Politicians from the left and right, primarily men, say they will heed the church's call. But women across the political spectrum have campaigned to rally voters to change the law.

The debate has consumed Italians, filling television talk shows and newspapers. Billboards across Rome urge "Abstention!" or decry the need for embryonic research to fight diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. "We are all ex-embryos," says another.

Supporters of the law say they are preserving human life; opponents say the law places the rights of embryos above those of women and dooms research.

Rita Levi-Montalcini, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine in 1986, called for the law to be overturned, arguing that stem cell research and genetic engineering "promise a better future for mankind." On the opposite side, writer Oriana Fallaci warned of "Frankenstein-like" abuse.

In a move that stunned many, Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini split with other leaders of his right-wing National Alliance party and said he would vote against the law. He said the church had no business telling voters what to do.

"We live in a secular state," Fini said. "Telling people not to vote is not the way to educate public opinion, nor does it teach people to assume their responsibilities."

Francesco Rutelli, leader of the center-left opposition Margherita party, said he would abstain. His wife, journalist Barbara Palombelli, said her husband was mistaken.

"I am absolutely opposed to assisted fertility, but it should absolutely not be denied to those who choose it," said Palombelli, the mother of three adopted children.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose rightist Forza Italia (Go, Italy) party drafted the restrictive law, said his wife also opposed it. So does his party's most prominent female member, Equal Opportunities Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo.

Others in his party, however, defended the law and the papal intervention.

"Who are we to say, 'This embryo we like, this one we don't; this one we accept, this one we don't'?" asked Enrico La Loggia, regional affairs minister. "Who are we to make such an aberrant choice that not even during Nazism they would have dreamt to make?"

"The pope has the right to say his opinion," La Loggia said, "and he says it well."

Under the law, the number of eggs that can be artificially inseminated is limited to three, and all three must be implanted in the woman's womb. None can be frozen. That means that if pregnancy fails, as is often the case in such situations, the woman must start over, again undergoing the harvesting of her eggs, which doctors say is the most painful and taxing part of the process.

The law bans the screening of fertilized eggs for genetic defects, even for couples with a history of disease. In vitro fertilization is allowed only for heterosexual couples who are in what the law refers to as "stable" relationships. Single women, women beyond childbearing age and gay couples are not allowed to use the procedure.

Surrogate motherhood and the donation of sperm and eggs are also banned.

Mika Hayama got pregnant through in vitro fertilization last year, just before the law took effect and after trying for 10 years. The harvesting phase is difficult, she said, because it requires bombarding the body with hormones to stimulate ovulation, usually requires time off from work and sends the mind through a roller coaster of emotions.

"It is very heavy on the body, physically and psychologically," said Hayama, 38, who gave birth to a boy, Zeno.

Francesca Pietra will probably go to Spain in her effort to become pregnant. At 44, she is no longer eligible for in vitro fertilization in Italy, and she needs a donated egg.

"It is absurd," she said. "Sure, in my case, I can afford to go abroad, but there are many who can't, and that makes me really angry." Pietra estimated the cost at just over $12,000, double the price of a year ago.

The Italian magazine Panorama, using anecdotal information, estimated that the number of Italian women going abroad for assisted reproduction had tripled under the law.

Dr. Niko Naumann, a gynecologist in Rome who specializes in fertility problems, said he frequently advised patients to go to other countries.

He said some sort of legislation was necessary because there was anarchy before the current law. Italy had become famous for its "granny births," for example, having produced some of the oldest new mothers in the world.

But the law that was enacted isn't very scientific, he said, and it makes it very difficult for some women to get pregnant.

The church's intervention in the referendum represents a growing movement to stem liberalization, especially in Europe, on so-called moral issues. Continuing a trend initiated under his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict also is fighting a Spanish law that allows gay marriage.

The last time the church instructed Italians on how to vote was in the 1970s and '80s, over efforts to make divorce and abortion illegal. Voters ignored their religious leaders in those cases.

But referendums generally fail to attract quorums in Italy, and this time the church is confident of victory.


Times staff writer Maria De Cristofaro contributed to this report.