A dismal turn-out in a national referendum has scuppered hopes for a liberalisation of Italy’s new law on assisted reproduction. Opponents of the measure, with the strong support of the Vatican and Catholic bishops, urged Italians to boycott the poll, as half of registered voters need to participate for it to be binding on Parliament. The referendum asked voters to authorise medical research on embryos, scrap a reference to the embryo as a full human being and give people with hereditary diseases access to IVF, which is currently permitted only for infertile couples.
The risky tactic worked. Although a majority of the votes cast supported these changes, only 25.9% of the electorate voted. Observers were unsure whether the result showed that the Catholic Church was still powerful enough to influence politics or whether Italians were thinking more about their summer holidays than political controversy.
Although the current fertility law (passed only last year) permits IVF, much to the chagrin of the Vatican, it is still the toughest in Europe. No more than three eggs may be fertilised in an IVF cycle; all embryos must be transferred to a womb simultaneously; no embryo research is allowed; and fertility treatment for single women and same-sex couples is forbidden.
Italian fertility doctors claim that the outcome means that more couples will turn to “reproductive tourism” to have babies. One survey showed that 25% of couples who seek overseas treatment go to Spain, 20% to England, and 18% to Belgium. Lawmakers backing changes said they would not give up and would try to modify the law in parliament.
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