Unusual birth sparks lively debate in Italy

January 13, 1995|By New York Times News Service

ROME -- The birth of a baby girl, supposedly conceived from an egg by a woman who died more than two years ago and carried to term by her sister-in-law, has unleashed a stormy debate in a land proud of its family values.

Since the birth last week, the story has fascinated many Italians -- not only because of the moral questions it has raised but also because of the story's unusualness and the simple fact that fertility is a favorite topic in the nation with the world's lowest birth rate.

The birth has prompted a condemnation from the Vatican and produced appeals for new Italian laws to curb some forms of artificial fertilization. It has also raised accusations of a kind of incest, since the woman who gave birth to the girl is reportedly the sister of the baby's father.

Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of the former dictator and a member of Parliament for the neo-Fascist National Alliance, called the birth "immoral and incestuous."

Further complicating matters, several colleagues of the Rome fertility specialist who said he engineered the procedure, Dr. Pasquale Bilotta, have questioned the feat's validity.

One gynecologist, Professor Ermanno Greco of Rome University, who had collaborated with Dr. Bilotta in the past, contended that Dr. Bilotta did not have the equipment or the skills to carry out such a procedure.

Dr. Bilotta has fiercely defended the birth, though he admits he invented the names of those involved to protect their identities.

The story of Elisabetta, as the baby is known, reportedly began in 1992, when an Italian couple sought Dr. Bilotta's aid.

According to Dr. Bilotta, Elisabetta was born from one of eight embryos conceived through in vitro fertilization in his laboratories before the 26-year-old woman, who is also known as Elisabetta, was killed in a car crash in December 1992.

Dr. Bilotta said he had attempted to implant four of the embryos before the woman's death. But each pregnancy failed, and four other embryos were frozen for future attempts. Following the woman's death, the husband asked Dr. Bilotta to implant one of the embryos in his 33-year-old sister, who has been identified only as Elena.

Reacting to the public debate, Dr. Bilotta yesterday defended the father's decision and his own actions. He said the father intends to adopt the baby girl, who, under Italian law, belongs to Elena and her husband.

Nevertheless, a majority of Italians appear to oppose the manner of Elisabetta's birth. On Wednesday, in a telephone survey of 1,170 people, nearly 52 percent said it was "morally unacceptable," while only 18 percent said they approved.

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