An attempt to loosen tight restrictions on in vitro fertilization (IVF) in Italy failed yesterday when barely half the required electorate turned out to vote. The result was precisely what Catholic Church leaders sought, although Italian scientists are still allowed to work with imported human embryonic stem (hES) cells.
Until January, Italy had no laws on IVF treatments or embryo research, enabling the infamous claims of gynaecologist Severino Antinori, who said he was trying to create the first cloned human. But a law that passed in February 2004 put tight restrictions into effect 6 months ago. It forbids the creation of more than three embryos per IVF attempt, all of which must be implanted in the potential mother, and it outlaws the donation of sperm or eggs. It also imposes a fine of more than $1 million for any attempt at human cloning.
Before the law took effect, Italy's far-left Radical Party collected nearly twice as many signatures as the 500,000 required for a petition to put four parts of the law up for review in a referendum: the ban on embryo research; giving legal rights to the human embryo; the ban on gamete donation; and the requirement that only three IVF embryos can be created, all of which must be implanted.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, opponents, including Pope Benedict XVI and Catholic bishops, calculated that a combination of voter apathy, summer vacations, and deliberate abstentions would keep the required quorum of 50% of eligible voters away from the polls.
Scientists were active on both sides, with several researchers, including Angelo Vescovi of the Stem Cell Research Institute at the University of Milan–Bicocca, saying new lines of human embryonic stem cells were not necessary to advance research. On the other side, more than 130 scientists from around the world signed a letter urging Italians to change the law. Researchers and patient groups staged several days of hunger strikes to protest what they called an unfair attack by the Church and other opponents on the referendum.
Elena Cattaneo of the University of Milan, one of a handful of researchers working with such embryonic cells in Italy, says she is bitterly disappointed by the vote. "It is a pity for science," she says. Marco Cappato, a member of the Radical Party and a leading campaigner for the referendum, says he and his colleagues will try to make the law an issue in the next elections, expected next spring, and win enough votes to change it in parliament.