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Italy Keeps Its Tough Anti-Fertility Treatment Laws - But Should It?
JUNE 19, 2005 - Last week Italians heeded the Catholic Church's advice and many of them abstained from voting on a referendum to lift highly conservative laws on the use of embryos for research and fertility treatments. Once lauded for its efforts to help women get pregnant, Italy in recent years passed a law that restricts embryonic research, limits the number of eggs that can be artificially inseminated to three and prohibits any of them from being frozen. It also bars third-party egg or sperm donors.
To undo the laws, the state required that half of the 50 million Italian voters vote in favor of it. Opposed to the proposed changes, the church - led by new Pope Benedict XVI - asked parishioners to stay away from the ballots - and for the most part they listened. Only 26% of the electorate turned out to vote in a referendum on June 12 and 13.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum, everyone in Italy was chiming in on the subject - from politicos to women who want better fertility treatments to be made available. The law, as it stands now, considers the embryos as a life form, and therefore they can not be frozen or stored. Eggs can be frozen but they lose potency, according to The New York Times. And the Italian government only allows three eggs at a time to be used to garner embryos, which means infertile women have even less of a chance at getting pregnant. Many Italians have gone abroad to seek fertility help.
The Church's involvement has prompted a debate about how much sway a religious group should have on government policies. Although the overwhelming majority of Italians still identify themselves as Catholic, fewer of them go to church regularly, and more Italians than Americans admit to using birth control, which the Catholic Church prohibits. In fact, Italy has the lowest birth rate in the industrialized world. And, before his death, Pope John Paul II asked the Italians to start breeding or risk losing their rich culture.
Although the church would like to see married Italians procreating, it is dead set against having them do so with fertility treatments. The Boston Globe reported that in the past, Italians were not convinced by the church. In 1974 and 1981 respectively, the Vatican supported referendums to make divorce and abortion illegal, and Italians did not go along with either. But this time things were different. No one is quite sure why although everyone and their mother has speculated on the subject.
Some say that the new pope may have something to do with it. The church promises to be even more conservative under Pope Benedict XVI. Just before the referendum, he also told bishops from South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho, where there is an epidemic of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, to urge parishioners to stop using condoms. He said the church instead wants to fight the outbreak of the disease, which is often transmitted through unprotected sex, by teaching abstinence and fidelity. Many in the scientific community have deemed the church's stance irresponsible, considering the thousands of people dying of AIDS in Africa.
It's hardly the first time the church and science have faced off. But advancing knowledge - as long as the scientists use good judgment - has always seemed to improve the world. Think of Galileo and Da Vinci. I suppose the answer is simply that the church should stay out of government affairs and have more faith in scientists to do the right thing. Give them the power to study embryos and do stem cell research - and help guide them to differentiate between using the knowledge they obtain for good instead of evil. Mankind will be much better off. And many infertile women may have a better chance at experiencing motherhood.
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