Fertility treatment bans in Europe draw criticism

By Maria Cheng

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 2:40 a.m. MDT

Eriksson said the restrictions no longer match reality. "There are so many different kinds of families today that it is not sustainable to maintain laws and regulations based on traditional family ideals," she said.

For IVF, women must undergo hormone stimulation to produce eggs and a procedure to extract them from the ovaries. Embryos are created by mixing sperm and eggs together in a lab, then transferred into a woman's womb.

Fertility treatment remains a taboo subject in many countries.

Germany's history of eugenics — where Nazi doctors forcibly sterilized or euthanized people in an attempt to eliminate hereditary illnesses and handicapped people — makes officials nervous about any procedures that handle embryos. It was only last year that Germany approved an embryo test commonly used elsewhere to spot genetic problems. The test, generally used only in IVF pregnancies, is still banned in Austria and Italy.

In other countries, religion carries more weight. France and Italy both have strong historic ties to the Roman Catholic Church, which forbids IVF, primarily because the procedure may involve the destruction of embryos. The church is also against artificial insemination because it believes procreation should only be by a husband and wife through the natural act of sex.

Until 2004, Italy's fertility laws were fairly lax, leading to pregnancies in women as old as 60, and a proliferation of woman "renting" their wombs. A law supported by leading Catholic groups that year clamped down on egg and sperm donation, limited the number of embryos transferred, and outlawed the practice of freezing embryos. The law restricts IVF to "stable, heterosexual couples who live together and are of childbearing age."

Italy says allowing donated eggs could exploit women and that the practice "would lead to a weakening of the entire structure of society."

Most couples seeking fertility treatments don't need donated eggs and sperm. And many government health systems will pay for fertility treatments for those who have been trying at least three years to conceive.

People in Western Europe who seek medical treatment elsewhere cannot be prosecuted at home even if the treatment is illegal in their own country. But there can be other complications. For example, in France, children born through surrogacy are not entitled to a French passport.

Still, authorities are struggling with how to deal with the complexity of IVF families. Last month, France's Court of Appeal upheld a decision to grant civil status — similar to nationality — to twins carried by a surrogate mother in India for a French couple. But in 2011, the French Supreme Court denied civil status to twins born to a surrogate mother in the U.S.

For gay and lesbian couples in France, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere, only one partner can be the child's legal father or mother.

"These restrictions imply that gays and lesbians are second-class citizens and that a child has to be raised in a conventional family," said Angelo Berbotto, a lawyer and acting secretary of NELFA, Europe's largest organization for gay and lesbian families.

Opponents say national health systems are not obligated to allow artificial reproduction techniques for same-sex couples.

"The desire to be a parent does not create the right to have children," said Gregor Puppinck, director general of the European Center for Law and Justice, a Christian group that lobbies European lawmaking bodies.

"What's lost is the best interests of the child," Puppinck said. "The child has a right not to have two fathers or two mothers."

Dr. Heinz Strohmer, a fertility doctor at a Vienna clinic, said most of his clients needing egg or sperm donations were more concerned about the logistics of getting treatment abroad than challenging Austria's law banning them.

"The only question they have is if we can organize everything for them," he said. Strohmer often works with clinics in the Czech and Slovak republics and Spain to get around the Austrian rules on IVF.

When Italian residents Giuseppina La Delfa and Raphaelle Hoedts decided to have a baby, they knew that would mean crossing borders. Needing a sperm donation for IVF that they couldn't get in Italy, the lesbian couple went to Belgium for more than a dozen cycles of fertility treatment. La Delfa gave birth to daughter Lisa-Marie in 2003.

"It was very difficult and it cost a lot of money, but it was the only way," said La Delfa, a 49-year-old French teacher. "Nothing was more important to us than her."

La Delfa considers the restrictions imposed on IVF for lesbian and gay couples not only archaic, but ineffective.

"They think there's only one way to be a parent," she said, of governments that ban fertility treatments. "They don't realize people will do whatever it takes to have a family."

For the two women, that meant another IVF trip last year, this time to Spain. Hoedts is currently pregnant with the couple's second child.

La Delfa said Lisa-Marie, now 8, is proud of her unusual origins.

"I joke with her that her big ears come from her donor," La Delfa said.

Online:

Fertility group: http://www.fertilityeurope.eu/

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