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Italy's fertility referendum due this weekend

6 June 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 311

A number of Italian scientists have gone on hunger strike in the hope of influencing a referendum that will take place at the weekend on Italy's controversial fertility laws. The referendum, which will take place on 12 and 13 June, asks whether a number of the key provisions in the law should be upheld.

Italy's laws, said to be the most restrictive in Europe, were passed in December 2003 to counter the country's reputation for being the 'Wild West' of fertility treatments. Now, the law restricts the provision of fertility treatments to 'stable heterosexual couples' who live together and are of childbearing age, and who are shown to be clinically infertile. Research using human embryos is prohibited, as well as embryo freezing, gamete donation, surrogacy, and the provision of any fertility treatments for single women or same-sex couples.

The law also says that no more than three eggs can be fertilised at any one time, and that any eggs fertilised must all be transferred to the uterus simultaneously, increasing the risk of multiple births. PGD and prenatal screening for genetic disorders are banned. Since the law was passed, fertility clinics across Europe have reportedly seen an increase in the numbers of Italian patients seeking treatment and also report a marked fall in success rates of IVF treatment (see commentary).

The referendum was approved by Italy's Constitutional Court last year after the country's Radical Party collected more than the 500,000 signatures necessary. However, the public are only to be asked to vote on four elements of the law, including the language that gives embryos full legal recognition as persons, the three embryo limit, and rules governing embryo research and gamete donation. A 'yes' vote would repeal these provisions, but for the results of the referendum to be legitimated, there must be a 50 per cent turnout. 'Yes' supporters have criticised the scheduling of the vote, at a time when many Italians take their summer holidays. They see this as a deliberate attempt by the government to keep the turnout low.

In advance of the referendum, more than 100 Italian scientists have written an open letter in which they urge people to vote. This follows calls last month and more recently from Italian actresses Sabrina Ferilli and Monica Belluci, who are strongly campaigning for a 'yes' vote. Thirty scientists and researchers are on hunger strike to protest about the lack of information being circulated to the public about the referendum. However, the words of the new Pope, who has called for Italians not to vote and to recognise that the law 'protects life', may also influence the outcome. Lifting the restrictions on fertility treatments would 'pose a threat to life and the family', he said. But Belluci accused the Roman Catholic Church of interfering with the 'sacrosanct' right of Italian women to have children. 'The law creates an absurd situation', she said, adding 'politicians and priests should stay out of this'. She continued: 'When I travel, people abroad laugh at me when I describe the Italian law to them', adding 'it's a law against women which is worthy of the Inquisition'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Actresses fight Pope over fertility
The Times |  4 June 2005
In political step, Pope confronts law on fertility
The New York Times |  31 May 2005
Italy faces embryo referendum
The Scientist |  2 June 2005
Pope backs Italy embryo boycott
BBC News Online |  30 May 2005
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