Italy to Decide Fate of Law On In Vitro Fertilization

Giuseppe Maltese and Maria Ditta will be unable to test in vitro embryos for a fatal bone disease.
Giuseppe Maltese and Maria Ditta will be unable to test in vitro embryos for a fatal bone disease. (By William Magnuson For The Washington Post)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 12, 2005

SAN BIAGIO ARGENTA, Italy -- The Italian couple watched their 4-month-old daughter die of a congenital bone disease last year. Told by a doctor that the disease was passed on genetically at conception, they were determined to take every precaution to avoid a repetition of the painful tragedy.

They looked into undergoing laboratory-assisted fertilization. The resulting embryos, produced outside the womb, could be checked for gene-borne disease before implantation in the mother's uterus.

But under an Italian law passed last year, such a procedure is banned. For one, it is illegal for fertile couples to undergo in vitro fertilization. Moreover, running any health tests on embryos created in a lab is prohibited, even if it is known that the parents carry genes that could pass a fatal disease on to their child.

The prospective parents, construction worker Giuseppe Maltese and his wife, Maria Ditta, are at a loss. They want to have a child but do not want to subject it to the torment their daughter, Erika, went through before she died.

"Those who support this law must never have had children with a grave health problem," Ditta said in an interview near their home in this north-central Italian village. "They must never have seen the martyred little body of their own daughter, who was condemned to death by a disease given her by her parents."

Cases like this one have generated a vociferous fight over Italy's restrictive law on laboratory-assisted pregnancy and stem cell research. Opponents of the law organized a petition drive that forced a referendum on it, to be held Sunday and Monday. Defenders of the measure, which is known as Law 40, say that while imperfect, it is the best compromise available on a touchy and controversial subject. The defenders are urging a voter boycott; a failure to reach a 50 percent turnout would keep Law 40 in force.

What was an internal political matter became an international cause when Pope Benedict XVI endorsed a call by Italian bishops for a voter boycott. Benedict has made the battle against abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and stem cell research on embryos a key theme of his young papacy.

"I implore you," he told the Italian bishops on May 30, "to continue the work you have undertaken so that the voice of Catholicism be continuously present in the Italian cultural debate," referring to the referendum. On June 6, he reiterated Vatican teaching against "manipulation" of human embryos, which is "contrary to human love, to the profound vocation of man and woman."

Vatican officials have all but called people like Maltese and Ditta potential murderers for wanting to produce embryos that might be destroyed -- in effect terming it an abortion before implantation. Italian commentators who support Law 40 said people like Maltese and Ditta are trying to produce a perfect child, in the style of Josef Mengele, the Nazi concentration camp doctor.

"Behind this referendum is a project to reinvent man in the laboratory, to transform him into a product to sell like steak or a bomb. Here we return to Nazism," wrote Oriana Fallaci, the Italian author of a series of best-selling books pouring scorn on Islam and asserting the superiority of Western culture.

"We're not trying to create a blue-eyed, blond-haired baby, some representative of a super race," Maltese responded. "Those who attack us say they are for life, but they are for death."

The referendum has shattered political party unity. Some members of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition -- which includes his Forza Italia party, as well as a nationalist faction, a northern regional party and Catholic groups -- have said they will disobey the Vatican's call for a boycott. Berlusconi has yet to declare which way he will vote, or whether he will vote at all.

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