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Pushing the Limits on In Vitro Fertilization

Italy Considers Loosening the Rules

ROME, JAN. 23, 2005 (Zenit) - Italy's Constitutional Court has opened the way for a series of referendums that could substantially weaken the law governing in vitro fertilization clinics. After years of debate, Parliament last February approved a series of norms on IVF treatment. Previously there were no legislative limits on the controversial procedure.

While the legal norms did not satisfy all the requirements of the Catholic Church, Italian bishops nevertheless declared their satisfaction for the measures that substantially improved matters. Fierce opposition to restrictions on IVF, however, did not abate with the parliamentary vote. In Italy the Constitution permits a law, or part of it, to be abrogated by means of a referendum, once enough signatures have been collected.

Following a campaign that was successful in obtaining these signatures, the Constitutional Court on Jan. 13 approved a vote on four of the five measures sought. Among the parts of the law sought to be canceled are the limitations on freezing and subsequent experiments with embryos. If this is abolished, embryos could be used to produce stem cells.

The referendums also seek to eliminate the limit on the number of embryos that can implanted in the womb and the prohibition on use of pre-implantation diagnosis that discards embryos with possible problems.

Current law prohibits the donation of sperm from someone outside the couple undergoing IVF treatment, and contains a recognition that the rights of the embryo need to be taken into account. All of these provisions would be abolished if the referendums are approved.

Chance to educate

This prospect alarms Francesco D'Agostino, president of Italy's National Bioethics Commission. In an interview Jan. 15 in the newspaper Corriere della Sera, he declared that it was necessary to maintain the current provisions that provide some respect for human life, and not to allow embryos to be manipulated according to merely utilitarian criteria.

D'Agostino also noted the contradiction in seeking to lift restrictions on research with human embryos, at a time when pressure to outlaw experiments using animals is rising.

Italian bishops, gathered as a conference this week, declared their opposition to any weakening of the law regulating IVF clinics. The conference president, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, said that he hoped the debate over the referendum questions would be an opportunity to educate Italians about the values at risk, the daily La Stampa reported Tuesday.

The bishops' current strategy is to convince Catholics not to vote, since referendums with less than a 50% participation rate are invalid.

"All over the place"

Relevant to the Italian debate might be the experience of other countries where there are few norms governing IVF clinics. A report last Tuesday by the Associated Press, for instance, contains revealing information about what goes on in U.S. facilities.

According to a survey of clinics published in Fertility and Sterility, a journal of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, most clinics in the United States would help women over age 40 to become pregnant. Only one in five would refuse single women, and one in four would help a woman suffering from the AIDS virus. The information came from the 210 clinics or doctors' offices that answered the survey questions.

"They were all over the place with respect to their views and values," said University of Pennsylvania bioethics chairman Arthur Caplan, who worked on the survey. Reproductive decisions now "are too driven by the desires of couples and not enough by the interests of children," he said.

Another revealing result was that while 80% of the clinics ask potential customers to meet with financial coordinators, only 18% had them see a social worker or psychologist.

Late moms

Unregulated IVF clinics captured media attention this week with news of the birth of a baby, Eliza Maria, to a 66-year-old retired university professor from Romania. Adriana Iliescu is believed to be the oldest mother to give birth, the London-based Times reported Monday. Her daughter is one of three embryos she had implanted; the other two died. The embryos were produced with the help of donated sperm -- Iliescu is unmarried. The surviving child was delivered by Caesarean section in the 33rd week of pregnancy.

"I believed all my life that a woman has a right to give birth and that is why I had to follow my dream, no matter how old I was," Iliescu was quoted saying.

In a commentary published the same day by the Times, Cristina Odone noted that "the ethos of the IVF industry -- and this includes all other forms of assisted reproduction -- remains questionable." She argued: ...

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