Since I first came to Italy 45 years ago, there has been a dramatic shift in Italian society. The collapse of the Roman Catholic Church as a forceful power in people’s lives has been dramatic. The loss of belief among younger generations is most notable among young women and now only about 5-7% of the population, largely older women, attends mass frequently. There was a small resurgence in interest with the appointment of Pope Francis but essentially Italy is now very much in line with other western European countries in being largely secular. Family is as strong as ever though, even though marriage and childbearing are later than they used to be. The drive to marry and raise a family still figure high in people’s priorities. But legislation drags behind what the population wants. Italy’s deep Catholic roots can be credited for its having one of the most restrictive laws on in vitro fertilization and embryo research in the western world, as well as having a relatively low abortion rate as 80% of doctors exercise the right to refuse to participate in abortion.
In April however Italy’s constitutional court overturned a ban on using donor sperm and eggs in fertility treatments, knocking down part of a divisive set of restrictions on assisted reproduction. The court said the ban breached the constitution, without going into further detail, but the Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin, from the socially conservative New Centre Right party, said parliament would have to debate how the court order could be applied-delaying tactics. Couples in Italy have launched a string of legal challenges to the restrictions and this week a court in Bologna granted a couple the right to use donors in fertility treatment immediately, four years since they launched their legal battle to have a family. Sperm and egg donation will at last become legal and in future the many couples who currently go abroad for treatment will no longer need to.
The law also outlaws the use of embryos in scientific research, although it supports research on tissue (adult) stem cell research. The exclusion of embryonic research and the position of embryos as ‘subjects with rights’ leaves 30,000 frozen supernumerary embryos in permanent limbo.