The Roman Catholic church is liable to launch a global offensive against infertility treatment following its victory in an Italian referendum last week, a leading expert said on Sunday.
Italians, urged from the pulpit to boycott the referendum, failed to turn out in sufficient numbers to dismantle Europe’s strictest law on In-vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo research.
Professor Arne Sunde, chairman of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), believes the Vatican’s intervention will not stop with Italy.
“Since this is obviously one of the key issues for the new Pope, he will try to say the same thing in other countries where the Catholic Church has influence,” he told.
“When the Vatican throws its weight and political influence, infertility (treatment) is one of the things that could be sacrificed.”
The 2004 Italian law bans egg and sperm donation and embryo research and freezing. It also allows only three eggs to be fertilised at a time and all must be transferred to the womb, which increases the risk of multiple births.
Sunde believes fertility treatment is just the start. The real showdown will be over embryonic stem cells - master cells that have the potential to form into any other cell type or tissue and which have the potential to cure a range of diseases.
“What we are heading towards is the battle around stem cells. The issue is the moral status of the early embryo. That is what it is all about,” he added.
NEARLY 2 MILLION IVF BABIES
The impact of the Italian law on doctors and patients, advances in stem cell research and improving fertility treatments will be major topics at the conference.
Nearly 2 million test tube babies have been born since IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) was perfected 27 years ago. An estimated one in six couples has a fertility problem and the multi-billion dollar business of catering to their needs is still growing.
“We will see a large increase in demand, purely because of advancing age in the next 10 years,” said Sunde.
Despite evidence that a woman’s fertility declines in her 30s, many women delay having children. When they try to conceive and fail they seek treatment.
“We are doing our best. But if your ovaries are too old we cannot change that fact,” said Sunde.
Scientists are expected to present new research showing why transferring one embryo into the womb, rather than several, can improve the early health of the baby.
Single IVF babies tend to be born earlier, weigh less and are hospitalised longer than naturally conceived infants but researchers could not explain why.
“Now we have two reports that might answer the question,” said Sunde.
Israeli researchers are also expected to shed new light on why some women over 45 years old can conceive naturally while others can’t.
About 5,300 fertility experts and scientists are attending the four-day meeting.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD