Italians Tackle Unregulated In Vitro Fertilization Industry

ROME — When you hear the term Wild West in Italy these days, people aren't referring to spaghetti Westerns. They are more likely thinking of the Italian in vitro fertilization industry, which until now has never been regulated.

But Parliament passed a controversial bill Dec. 11 that finally pulled in the reins — and far more sharply than many had expected.

The new legislation prohibits heterologous fertilization, or donations of sperm or eggs from third parties. It limits in vitro fertilization techniques to heterosexual couples, married and cohabiting — excluding homosexual couples, single women, surrogate mothers, women who want to conceive with sperm from a deceased spouse or grandmothers who would carry their own grandchildren.

The law prohibits genetic tests on embryos to see if genetic diseases have been transmitted. It also proscribes cloning or experimentation on embryos.

Perhaps the most outstanding features of the bill are that embryos cannot be frozen any longer, and in vitro fertilization procedures can only be used to produce three embryos per couple. All of the embryos must be implanted in the womb. Women cannot refuse implantation once the eggs are fertilized. If none of them results in pregnancy, the couple cannot use in vitro fertilization again.

The measures are bound to prevent situations where thousands of “spare” embryos are kept in frozen storage indefinitely — and sometimes are forgotten or destroyed.

“I see [the law] as very positive,” said Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the bioethics school at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University, the Legionaries of Christ's university in Rome. “I am against artificial fertilization because it is an offense against human life — but at least this protects the embryo as much as it can.”

Bishop Elia Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was more qualified regarding the legislation. He stressed that any law that allows for in vitro fertilization is not morally licit.

“Everyone knows — and it is good to repeat it — that for the Catholic view of life and procreation,” the child must be conceived “within a conjugal act of love,” Bishop Sgreccia told Vatican Radio. “A law that allows conception in a test tube is never considered licit.”

At the same time, Bishop Sgreccia noted that Catholics and non-Catholics had worked together to limit “the damages that can come not only from the 'Wild West' situation that existed until today but by artificial procreation in its various technologies, which increasingly multiply.”

“What has been achieved is no joke,” he said. Yet, “we cannot say that the law is in keeping with Catholic morality, or that it is perfect in all its points.”

The in vitro fertilization industry went unregulated for so long because Italian governments typically do not stay in power very long, making it very difficult to pass laws of significant complexity. Consequently, despite Italy's Catholic culture, there has been half a century of unregulated public and private assisted-fertility programs.

This has allowed anomalies such as the 63-year-old woman who gave birth nine years ago with a donated egg. The woman was helped by Dr. Severino Antinori, who has gained international notoriety for his stated ambition to produce a human clone.

Embryo's 'Rights’

The new bill divided Italian politicians along religious lines rather than party affiliation. Members of the center-left opposition found themselves voting with members of the center-right government and vice versa.

Deputy foreign minister Margherita Boniver, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling Forza Italia Party, called the legislation a “burqa law,” invoking the image of the shroud-like veil used by Afghan women under the Taliban regime. Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Italy's World War II dictator and a right-wing member of parliament, vowed to have the legislation repealed. Marco Pannella of the Radical Party argued that the bill would lower Italy's already low birthrate.

Despite such criticisms, the bill has widespread public support — especially among Catholics.

“This is not a 'Catholic' law, which can be confusing,” said Dr. Marina Casini, head of the bioethics school at the prestigious Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome. Her father is the president and founder of Italy's pro-life movement. “Catholics have clear guidelines on these issues in Donum Vitae [the 1987 Vatican instruction on the beginnings of human life] and [Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical] Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life]. You cannot substitute conjugal love with 'techniques.’”

“That being said, this law is appreciated by Catholics because it defends the rights of the embryo. Before this, it was a 'Wild West' — everything was done,” Casini continued. “Now this gives order.”

Another pro-life aspect is the deference given to the human embryo. The bill speaks about the embryo's right to life, its right to protection and its right to have parents because of its right to a sound psychological and existential identity. It also speaks about the embryo's right not to be manipulated and its right to its own genetic identity.

“It is an enormous conquest to speak about the embryo,” Casini said.

Italians who support abortion are nervous about the focus the bill gives to the rights of embryos.

“It is clear that there will have to be some rethinking on the abortion law,” said Casini, referring to the 1978 legalization of abortion in Italy.

Law's Origins

But how did such a radical law on in vitro fertilization come to pass? Apparently, pro-life groups in Italy have been working behind the scenes on this bill for years.

“Some say that Italy is a 'retrograde' in Europe because of this bill,” Father Miranda said. “But Germany has a similar law. Spain also passed a law in November that limits a couple to three embryos and stops the freezing of embryos. In the preamble to the Spanish law, it says that the freezing of embryos is a 'grave and urgent' problem. This shows that modernity does not mean 'no limits.' To put limits is actually progress, not retrograde.”

The bill, which passed the Italian Senate by a 169-92 vote, is expected to be rubber stamped in the lower Chamber of Deputies before being signed into law.

Though some newspapers chose to highlight the bill's critics, most Italians appear happy with this new law because they feel uncomfortable with in vitro fertilization procedures.

“I think in vitro fertilization goes against human nature,” said Simona Vicari, a stay-at-home mom of two young girls. “If you can't have children, you have to accept the situation. And if you really desire children badly, you should adopt.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Rome.

(Zenit contributed to this story.)