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Last Updated: Monday, 9 August, 2004, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK
Fertility laws frustrate Italians
By Tamsin Smith,
BBC reporter, Rome

IVF sample
The new laws ban the freezing of pre-implanted embryos
New laws making it more difficult for couples to get fertility treatment in Italy are starting to have an impact.

Since Italy's new fertility law was passed five months ago, the success rate for treatments has dropped from one-in-four to one-in-nine.

Catholic politicians across the political spectrum supported the clamp down on Italy's traditionally liberal approach to fertility treatment.

But the laws are frustrating couples trying for children.

Baby photos decorate the waiting room of Italy's biggest state funded infertility clinic at Milan's Regina Helena Hospital.

The pictures are a cheerful reminder of the hundreds of success stories produced here.

Repeat procedure

But while the UK has recently relaxed its laws on the genetic screening of embryos, Italy now gives embryos the same rights as citizens. This means no screening or freezing of pre-implanted embryos; no sperm or egg donation; no surrogacy or embryo research.

Critics say the law is medieval and damaging to women.

"I'm so upset and frustrated about this law as it limits my chances to have a child," says 34-year-old Francesca Muratori, lying in a darkened room at the Milan clinic.

She has just had three embryos implanted.

It is clear that in the collective imagination in Europe, Italy was the place where everything was possible
Dorina Bianchi,
Christian Democrat
"I actually produced 14 healthy eggs," she explains. "Normally, in another country you could fertilise them all, and find out which are healthiest, but now with this law I just have to take the first three."

Because no embryos can be frozen, Francesca will face the whole procedure again soon if she does not become pregnant.

"Undergoing ovarian stimulation and the pick up of eggs is very painful," she says, trying not to lift her head from the pillow. "It's a process which affects your health and increases risks from side affects. And as you can imagine, the emotional side of this is also very tough."

Doctor Guido Rani, director of the fertility unit, takes me on a tour through the pastel coloured corridors of the hospital.

"This is where we kept frozen embryos," he says, pointing into one room. "Obviously this is now forbidden. But the ridiculous thing about the law is that it suggests freezing unfertilized eggs instead. Everyone knows there's little medical research on this."

It is the ban on screening embryos for disease that angers him the most.

"Couples who know they could be carriers of a genetic disease have a 25% chance of passing it on to an embryo," says Dr Rani. "Now it's forbidden to screen an embryo before implantation to find out if it has the disease. But under Italian law it is legal to have a scan during pregnancy and to abort a diseased foetus.

"It's a clear contradiction to ban the screening of an eight cell embryo but later to allow an abortion of a growing foetus up to 24 weeks old."

Fertility travel

For couples who want their embryos screened, or who want donor treatments now banned in Italy, there is only one option. It is called fertility tourism, and is easier for the rich than the poor.

Some clinics in Spain, Austria and Switzerland are already reporting a 20% increase in Italian patients. I spoke to several Italian doctors who intend to set up practices just outside Italy's borders this autumn.

The Italian government is giving cash bonuses for second children
"If this treatment doesn't work then I will definitely go somewhere else," says Francesca Moratori, who plans to join the new boom in foreign fertility holidays.

"The UK has a more open mind towards fertility and I'd like to go there."

Next stop on the tour of Milan's fertility clinic is the research laboratory. Before the law was passed, half of the unit's resources were dedicated to research.

Dr Rani shakes his head.

"Now because the law says no embryo research everything has stopped. Here we carried out mainstream research in collaboration with European partners. Our money comes from the state so the research was pretty uncontroversial."

It is the research done by a handful of maverick doctors in private clinics which gave Italy the reputation of the "wild west" of fertility treatment. Doctors helped women over 60 become pregnant and claimed they were winning the race to clone humans.

"It is clear that in the collective imagination in Europe, Italy was the place where everything was possible," says Christian Democrat politician Dorina Bianchi.

Women's rights

She say Italy's reputation justified the need for radical change and a radical law.

"Italy's grandmothers became mothers and every uterus was for rent. This really wasn't a positive image and we needed to take back control. We believe an embryo as soon as it's fertilised has the right to life. This is a restrictive law, there's no doubt about it, but we don't want to harm women's rights."

Scientists, intellectuals, and politicians spearheading a referendum to try to overturn the law disagree. They say the law damages women's health and rights and is based on religion and politics rather than science.

"It's really a big step backwards to consider a fertilised egg more important than the mother," says Fabrizia Giuliana, a university lecturer.

"I'm worried that this law will lead to a reopening of the debate on the abortion law."

Her fears may be well-founded. A senator in Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party has proposed a law limiting free abortions to one per woman, after which they would be charged.

Demand for fertility treatment will continue to rise in Italy. Women here, like the rest of Europe, are having children later in life. With the lowest birth rate in Europe, the Italian government is giving cash bonuses for the birth of a second child.

Yet its fertility law offers no rewards for the thousands of couples who need fertility treatment to have their first child.

Watch the video on this story

Italy fertility treatment curbed
09 Mar 04  |  Europe
Italy bans donor sperm and eggs
11 Dec 03  |  Europe
Italy offers families baby-cash
01 Dec 03  |  Europe
Q&A: Sex selection
12 Nov 03  |  Health

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