Rally in support of assisted reproduction

ROME (WOMENSENEWS)–This city has been overwhelmed in recent days by pilgrims to the Vatican in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II.

But for the past year a quite different pilgrimage has been taking place: that of women leaving the country in search of artificial insemination.

Last year, almost 5,000 couples sought treatments provided by the Valencian Institute of Infertility, which has centers in major Spanish cities, according to data from the Center on Studying and Preserving Human Oocytes and Sperm, based in Rome, which monitors fertility clinics and centers.

The “pro-creational” trips began in February of 2004, when Italian legislators passed Law 40 to tame what critics called a “wild west” of fertility medicine that had produced sensational headlines about “granny mothers,” or women above normal child-bearing age, giving birth.

Following the passage of the law, the number of women receiving fertility treatments in Italy fell to 1,746 in the last 10 months of 2004, down from 2,418 in the comparable period of 2003, according to a survey of the country’s six fertility centers published last month by the Il Sole 24 Ore daily.

Instead of seeking treatment in Italy, more and more women and their mates began “travels of hope” to receive artificial insemination treatments outside the country, often in Spain. Many seek donor sperm or donor eggs, both of which are forbidden by Law 40.

Not Everyone Can Afford Trip

Not everyone can afford the trip.

An artificial insemination in Spain can cost between $4,136 and $5,299, with a treatment involving donor eggs or sperm requiring the higher payments, said Federica Casadei, president of the Rome-based Looking for a Child (Cerco un Bimbo), an advocacy group for those seeking fertility treatment.

When transportation and hotel costs are added, treatment costs can run between $6,462 and $7,775 and even higher when couples seek treatments in countries other than Spain.

“I was lucky enough because I got artificially inseminated before this law and I had the money to pay for it,” said Maria Rita, now the mother of twins, who asked to go by her first name only. “But those women who can’t afford it will never have the chance to become mothers.”

Sandra, who does not want her last name to be used, says that she could not afford to travel outside the country. “Due to the ratification of this law, I will not be able to be a mother because I need an insemination with donor sperm,” she told Women’s eNews. “What can I do now? Who cares about our sorrow?”

Many people apparently do care.

In the months after the passage of Law 40, women’s rights advocates, couples unable to conceive, researchers, doctors, celebrities and politicians demonstrated against it.

National Referenda in June

Now, in national referendums to be held throughout the country on June 12 and 13, voters will have the chance to overturn one or all of four key articles of Law 40.

One article on the ballot bans stem-cell research that involves embryos.

Another places a three-egg limit on the number of fertilized eggs that can be implanted in the womb during a treatment. This is contrary to the practice elsewhere in Europe where the number of implanted eggs is commonly much higher to increase the success odds of success. Under the three-egg limit, the success rate has fallen to between 20 percent and 30 percent from rates that, before the law, were around 40 percent. This has left women with the choice between more repeat treatments, giving up or seeking treatment outside the country.

A third article establishes the legal rights of an embryo.

A fourth article bans “heterogeneous insemination,” involving either donated sperm or surrogate mothers. This article effectively excludes gay couples, single mothers and mothers who would like to use sperm from a deceased partner and restricts artificial insemination to “stable” heterosexual couples.

Polls Favor Assisted Reproduction

Nearly 65 percent of Italians say they would like the country to allow at least some kinds of artificial insemination, according to a survey published in December by the Rome-based Eurispes, European Institute of Political, Economic, and Social Studies. Almost 56 percent said the use of use of donor sperm and eggs should be legal. The referendums were pushed by a coalition of center-to-left parties and are backed by the Radical Party. These and other supporters have expressed dismay at the June 12 and 13 dates set by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The balloting falls on the first Sunday and Monday after most schools in Italy will have closed for the summer, when many voters are expected to be away on vacation. If a quota–50 percent of the electorate plus one eligible voter–is not met the current law will stand. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar general for the Diocese of Rome and secretary general of the Italian Episcopal Conference, is advising people to stay away from the polls.

The choice of the dates “is simply outrageous,” Casadei, “This is a referendum millions of Italians signed for.”

“We would have preferred May for the referendums,” added Casadei, president of the advocacy group Looking for a Child. “But this is no time for regrets. We are already working at a local and national level to raise people’s awareness through rallies, public debates and meetings.”

Clara Park is a freelance writer based in Rome. She is also a staff writer for [email protected] News press agency ([email protected] iltuogenered’informazione), where she covers world news, gender, human rights and development issues.

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