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Italy's embryo law remains

Scientists disappointed as low voter turnout dashes efforts to loosen restrictive fertility legislation

By | June 14, 2005

Efforts to dismantle Europe's most restrictive fertility legislation were dashed on Monday as a two-day nationwide consultation over a controversial law in Italy failed because of low voter turnout.

Although more than 80% of those who did take part in the referendum answered "Yes" to revise the much disputed law, only 25.9% of eligible citizens actually took part in the referendum—roughly half the number required for it to be legally valid.

"We lost, and we lost heavily," said Daniele Capezzone, head of Italy's Radical Party and promoter of the referendum.

Approved in 2003, "Law 40" regulates the field of reproductive technology by banning a range of activities on ethical grounds. Before it passed, Italy had been referred to as the Wild West of reproduction, where menopausal women gave birth, and embryo tourism and human cloning plans flourished.

But Law 40 banned any embryo testing for research or experimental purposes, freezing embryos, or embryo suppression. It forbids the use of stem cells from about 30,000 embryos that were created and frozen before the new rules came into force, as well as preimplantation diagnosis for preventing genetically transmitted diseases.

It also prohibits donor insemination, denies access to artificial reproductive techniques for single women, and states that no more than three cells may be fertilized in vitro, and that they must be transferred into the womb simultaneously.

The referendum–backed by more than 100 scientists and researchers, including Nobel Laureates Rita Levi Montalcini and Renato Dulbecco–would have deleted the law's provisions relating to embryo research, the attribution of rights to the embryo, the three embryo limit, and the ban on egg or sperm donation.

"Italians have simply chosen to confirm that in the embryo there is the beginning of life," said Paola Binetti, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Rome and chairperson of the Science and Life Committee, in a radio interview.

But scientists who campaigned to amend the year-old law reacted with disappointment to the referendum's outcome. According to fertility expert Carlo Flamigni, Italian pioneer of test-tube baby technology, Italy will now be forced to import research from more liberal countries. "I wonder what they will do if embryonic stem cells prove effective against certain diseases. Italy will have to buy patents from other countries," Flamigni told The Scientist.

Immunologist Ferdinando Aiuti, meanwhile, said the referendum not only dashed hopes for scientists, but dragged Italy into the "Middle Ages of research."

Among the supporters of Law 40, Angelo Vescovi, codirector of the Stem Cell Research Institute at San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, said he believed the referendum was not appropriate for such a complex and delicate issue.

"This law has a high value. Regulating research with rules that imply the protection of human life–one of researchers' main goals–does not mean that the freedom of research is violated," he said in a television interview.

The Vatican's vigorous campaign for the referendum to be boycotted played a key role in the consultation, said defeated campaigners. Under the slogan "Life cannot be put to the vote," Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the head of the Italian bishops' conference and the Pope's vicar for Rome, asked Italians to abstain from voting. He was backed by Pope Benedict XVI, who, in his first incursion into Italian politics, endorsed the Italian bishops' call for a boycott of the vote.

"However, more than the boycotters' victory, this is a victory of apathy and indifference," said Capezzone. He told The Scientist that scientists and citizens will gather in Rome on June 17 for a three-day meeting to discuss new action against the law. "We will continue our battle. Among so many doubts, this is the only certain thing."

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