Italian legislation on assisted fertility has gone from one extreme to the other. First Italy had an unregulated anything goes system,* which led to notorious cases of granny births and gave the country the nickname of the wild west of fertility treatment. Then it went to the new regime presented by the government and passed by parliament in February 2004 with the cross-party support of various Catholic parties that introduced what is widely considered the strictest legislation in Europe.

The referendum on 12 and 13 of June on assisted fertility asks voters if they want to scrap the most controversial parts of the new law, which some experts have said was not properly thought through or as the Italians say scritto con i piedi to bring back a degree of balance.

The campaign for change is led by the unaligned, fiercely secular Partito Radicale. According to the party, the present norms place womens health at risk and deny sterile couples many options that are standard treatment in other European states. The Partito Radicale says that the politicians who proposed and passed the law were bowing to pressure from the Catholic Church. The party, which collected over 1.5 million signatures in support of the referendum, actually wanted to abolish the law completely. The constitutional court, however, ruled that this would be going too far.

Italians will vote yes or no to four questions on 12 June, each concerning different articles of the assisted fertility law. A majority yes vote to any of the four questions will abolish that particular article; a no vote will uphold it. People can vote differently on all four questions.

A yes vote to the first question would reverse the existing ban on freezing embryos. Doctors often fertilised more eggs than were needed to implant in the mother and froze the surplus during the in vitro process. This was mainly to save the couples time and money if the in vitro fertilisation (IVF) therapy failed first time, so they wouldnt have to go through the whole process again. On occasions though, physicians have controversially used frozen embryos to impregnate women whose partner had died.

This part of the referendum also regards the ban on the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which enables doctors to spot damaged embryos before implanting them, thus reducing the risk of abortion and the danger that the child will be disabled. Under the present law the screening of embryos for abnormalities is even forbidden for couples with a history of genetic disease.

A yes to this section would also do away with the ban on carrying out research on human embryos. The measure is designed to protect the dignity of human life, which, supporters argue, should never be experimented with, even at its earliest stages. Many scientists counter, on the other hand, that this prevents them using stem cells from embryos to develop therapies for a wide range of illnesses that affect born human beings, not the potential ones the embryos could become. Catholic experts reply that human stem cells can be collected from other sources, so it is not necessary to use embryos. But many researchers claim embryonic stem cells are much better and easier to work with. They also point out that unused embryos produced during fertility treatments now have to be thrown away because of the law. If the right to life is so precious, wouldnt it be better to use those embryos to help medical science progress?

The second question is whether or not to ditch the limitation on the number of embryos that can be implanted into a woman at any one time. At present the limit is three embryos. Embryologists say the limit makes IVF therapies less effective. This, in turn, puts womens health at risk because it means they often have to go through the implantation process more times than would otherwise be necessary. The BBC reported recently that the success rate for Italian fertility treatment has dropped from one-in-four to one-in-nine since the new law came into force. The yes campaigners claim that the number of infertile couples leaving Italy in so-called pro-creational tourism has risen by a fifth. This part of the vote also determines whether to cancel the section forbidding women from changing their minds about fertility treatment. As things stand, once the embryos are created, doctors must implant all three into the woman, even if she has second thoughts.

A yes vote to the third question would abolish the article of the law that upholds the rights of the unborn child. Critics say this section, which refers to the rights of all subjects involved, including the child in the womb, effectively gives embryos the same legal status as born human beings. It is seen by some as a backdoor attack on abortion rights.

The final question concerns the ban on sperm and egg donors. The present law stops homosexual couples and single people from having children via assisted fertility. The aim is to preserve the nuclear family as the base unit of society. However, it also rules out assisted fertility for many couples where the mans sperm is the problem, and it forbids the use of surrogate mothers.

In addition to the support of the Partito Radicale, the yes campaign has the backing of almost all the left-wing parties. However, Francesco Rutelli, the leader of the centre-left Margherita party, has not said which way he will vote, and many in the party who have Catholic roots will vote no to all four questions. Rosy Bindi, a former health minister and leading member of the Margherita, is one of the major advocates of the no camp.

On the right, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has kept his opinions to himself and has given Forza Italias supporters the freedom to follow their conscience. Alleanza Nazionale is split, because many in the party disagree with its leader, the foreign minister and deputy prime minister Gianfranco Fini, who has said hell vote yes to the first three questions.

The Lega Nord and the centre-right Unione Democratici Cristiani are backing the call of the Catholic Church in Italy, led by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, to abstain from voting and thus defeat the referendum by preventing it reaching the 50 per cent quorum it needs to make the vote valid.

*For students of English.

Below are some idiomatic phrases from the text above to improve your English. Please write (in English or Italian) to editorial@wantedinrome.com if you have any comments, suggestions or difficulties.

Anything goes system a system where anything is possible

Widely considered generally believed to be

To scrap to get rid of

Were bowing to pressure were under pressure

Will uphold it will keep it

To go through the whole process again to start again

Do away with to cancel

Came into force became effective

Backdoor attack indirect criticism

Has the backing of is supported by