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In Europe, Italy now a guardian of embryo rights

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"It might seem logical that if you protect the embryo you should protect the fetus," says Professor Silvio Ferrari, who heads the Observatory on Freedom and Religious Institutions in Milan, Italy. "It is probable that in coming months or years there will be an attempt to restrict the regulations on abortion. But ... if I had to bet on it, I'd say [that on abortion] things will stay the same."

The numbers of couples travelling abroad for more flexible treatment is estimated to have tripled since the law came into effect last March.

The law submitted to the referendum puts Italy clearly out of step with the rest of Europe, although different governments on the continent have taken very different approaches to the issues of fertility treatment and embryo research.

"This is a very vivid and difficult subject of discussion," says Laurence Lwoff, an expert at the Council of Europe, the European human and social rights organization. "The picture is very diverse from country to country."

But on one issue, the donation of sperm and eggs to infertile couples, Italian law is more restrictive than anywhere else in Europe but Germany, Norway, and Turkey, according to a survey by the British Human Fertilization and Embryology Agency, a government watchdog.

Only three European countries allow therapeutic cloning of embryos, for medical purposes - Britain, Belgium, and Sweden.

Research groups elsewhere in Europe decried the low Italian turnout Monday, which meant that the current law stands. "These are draconian laws that will have disastrous results," says Margaret Willson, spokeswoman for the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology.

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