Catholic church vs saviour of the childless
talks to Severino Antinori
Severino Antinori, Italy's
charismatic pioneer of medically assisted reproduction and godsend
to the country's estimated 18 per cent of sterile couples, is
fighting for survival.
Antinori, 55, has been christened
by the national press "the miracle father of impossible
children", but the Roman Catholic church feels that this is
one miracle it can do without.
Vatican pressure for stringent
measures on fertility treatments could force Antinori to close
shop and emigrate, continuing the tradition of Italy's top
scientists, including Nobel laureates Rita Levi Montalcini and
A church-backed bill has just been
blocked by a surprise vote after a battle in the Italian
parliament, but Italy's rightwing, which is favourite to gain
power next year, says it will press for legislation on the basis
of the same bill after the elections.
At the infertility unit of
Antinori's international research centre, just 500 yards from St
Peter's in Rome, baroque paintings in the luxurious reception
portray winged cupids, wistful maidens, madonna-like matrons and
chubby-faced children. A plaque from one of his 2,000-plus
satisfied couples expresses eternal gratitude to the "caro
professore" for turning a dream into reality; another warns
patients that though the centre boasts good results, it does not
Antinori's clients, many of whom
are British, come from all walks of life. Some are top
international names in sport, cinema and world affairs. He was
even approached once, he relates, by a handsome 39-year-old
gentleman with a zero sperm count (azoospermia), who turned out to
be a Catholic priest. The man later phoned to cancel his
appointment and was never seen again.
But now "the miracle
father" is fuming and seeking international support.
"This is a law aimed not just against progress but against
humanity itself. It is based on a fundamentalist religious ideal
that is even more dangerous than that of the Ayatollah Khomenei.
This is not just obscurantism in the face of the pursuit of truth
- it is an inquisition."
Antinori warmly acknowledges the
support of the British medical world during his years of
persecution by the Vatican. "For four years, they tried to
crucify me with an avalanche of libel and slander - and all
because these people demand absolute power over man and science.
In Italy we have the Roman Catholic church, which persecuted
Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei. Basically nothing has changed
since then - it's just that nowadays they do it differently. The
situation cannot be allowed to go on."
Trouble began in 1986 when
Antinori started experimenting on sperm injection techniques in
cases of male infertility. The news produced a wave of defamatory
statements against him in the Catholic press. He raised three
legal actions, won them all and will donate the proceeds to the
scientific community. His persecution by the church is, he argues,
an implicit condemnation of all researchers who try to work freely
and objectively. For him, the latest Vatican move for legislation
could be the last straw.
Italy has no national legislation
on fertility treatments. It relies mainly on regulations laid down
by the Italian medical association's code of ethics, which were
last updated in 1994. But Pope John Paul II is pressing for the
introduction of laws to regulate medically assisted human
The proposed legislation sanctions
in vitro fertilisation in Italy under a licensing and monitoring
system that seeks to protect the rights of all involved,
"especially those of the conceived". It is said to be
inspired by the British Human Fertilisation and Embryology
The bill states that no more than
three cells may be fertilised in vitro and they must be
transferred into the womb simultaneously. In Britain, the HFEA
limits the transfer of embryos to a maximum of three to avoid
multiple births, but there is no limit on the number of cells that
may be fertilised. Antinori, whose clinic has a low percentage of
multiple births, says fertilising fewer than eight cells would cut
his 30 per cent pregnancy success rate to as little as 3 per cent.
The bill's limitation of fertility
treatment to women "of a potentially fertile age" would
also exclude menopausal subjects, an area in which Antinori has
been a pioneer. In 1989, Antinori's patient Paola R. became the
first menopausal woman in history to give birth, after a donor egg
implant. Since then Antinori has helped about 80 women over the
age of 50, in advanced menopause, to "realise their
impossible dream". Among them was Rosanna Giorgi Della Corte,
63, who in 1994 became the oldest woman to give birth.
In addition, both surrogacy and
the use of third-party donor sperm and eggs would be outlawed by
the bill. In Britain the HFEA last year approved the first bulk
import of sperm from Denmark to meet growing needs, having lifted
the ban on paid egg-sharing a year earlier. HFEA chairwoman Ruth
Deech has said that a culture of altruism in sperm and egg donors
should be encouraged. "Again you see that here in Italy we
are in the dark ages compared with countries such as
Britain," Antinori says. "What is it if not an act of
love to help a woman with no uterus? Although our church preaches
a lot about love, it seems to have little understanding of such
Finally, the bill's prohibition of
all experiments on individual human embryos would, Antinori
argues, kill the field of assisted reproduction in Italy stone
dead. Antinori supports human cell nucleus replacement, or
cloning, for the therapeutic help it could provide in the
treatment of cancers and of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.
He also supports the cloning of sperm in cases of azoospermia, but
he opposes the cloning of human organs.
The proposed legislation would
impose severe penalties on doctors, including from ten to 20 years
in prison and fines from Pounds 50,000. Neither "parent"
involved in illegal use of third-party donor sperm or eggs would
be able to disclaim legal parenthood.
In its present form, the bill
could face challenges on the grounds that it unduly limits freedom
and fails to give an adequate legal definition of a potentially
fertile age and of those legal persons whose rights are being
protected. Should it become law, recourse to the Italian
constitutional court would be almost automatic.
Some have already resorted to the
courts. Earlier this year, a Rome doctor, Pasquale Bilotta, won an
appeal in a case brought against him by the national medical
association for using egg-sharing treatment. The association says
it will present a counter-appeal at the Supreme Court. And a
doctor in Pavia, Cesare Galli, who recently had his cloned bull
confiscated by police and his laboratory placed under sequester,
is reportedly also taking legal action.
Antinori, who despite
international recognition and a string of respected publications,
has been unable to secure a tenured post, is scathing about the
state of university research. "Mine is a cry of distress
because the cream of Italy's scientists are forced to go abroad.
The mechanisms that characterise the Italian university system and
research need to be changed completely by sweeping away the whole
bureaucratic, administrative and religious world. There is always
this religious spectre behind everything in Italy."
So disillusioned has Antinori
become with politicians that he founded a political movement,
Autonomia Liberale, which won an encouraging 8,000 votes at local
elections in Lazio. He is backed by other radical freedom-fighters
such as Antonio Di Pietro, the "clean hands"
So far as the threat to his
fertility work goes, the first round has gone better for him than
expected. But the reappearance of former Christian Democrat prime
minister Giulio Andreotti as a guiding force to Italy's Catholic
politicians promises a fiercer battle ahead.
Meanwhile, the pope, who insists
that the suppression of a human cell's "right to life"
is fundamentally immoral, concluded his jubilee speech to an
audience of 7,000 international academics last month with the
statement that moral demands based on an awareness of the limits
of science are not obscurantist.
Italy's miracle father is putting up the fight of his life, but he may need something of a miracle if he is to withstand the crushing power of the holy Vatican.
Note: This interview first appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on October 6 2000.