World: Italy is fertile ground for 'unusually excellent' semen scam

Italy may be notorious for its lack of legislation on reproduction technology - IVF, artificial insemination and the rest - but it does have a curious article in its criminal code concerning the "attempted spread of epidemics". So when police in Florence suspected one of the country's most prominent sperm and ovocyte banks of peddling infected materials, they wasted no time closing the establish- ment down and throwing three of its practitioners into jail.

Thus Italy has been landed with yet another medical scandal, in which respectable professionals in white coats are being accused of charlatan quackery. But in the country that boasts a 62-year-old mother and a foetus carried to term by its father's sister, all perfectly legally, the wonder is that any criminal charge could be found to put a stop to the unseemly business.

The heart of the investigation concerns an unemployed 37-year-old factory worker who began donating sperm on a regular basis four years ago, even though he had tested positive for herpes simplex and for hepatitis C. According to the investigators, the clinic was so keen to exploit the commercial potential of the man's "unusually excellent quality" sperm that it falsified his test results for its records. The man, whose name has not been released, was paid pounds 30 to pounds 40 a go for hundreds of donations, each of which was then sold on for pounds 150.

Italy's 200-odd fertility clinics have been thrown into panic as they check their stocks and invite patients to undergo extended tests.

At the Florence clinic, the police discovered a series of hair-raising anomalies, unthinkable in any country with an adequate legal framework for experiments in fertilisation but very possibly unpunishable in Italy for the time being. The infected donor could, in theory, have fathered dozens of children, in clear contravention of normal ethical practice, whereby the sperm of any individual donor must not be used more than a handful of times.

The clinic, police say, also encouraged dozens of cash-strapped women, including prostitutes, to donate their ova for money, but failed to warn them of the possible side effects. One drug, administered to heighten fertility, caused two 30-year-old donors to experience premature menopause.

Every aspect would cause a seizure among fertility watchdogs in the rest of Europe. In Britain, paying donors more than a nominal fee - currently pounds 15 - is considered highly unethical. Volunteers are screened for possible infectious diseases, and quizzed about their medical history. Some 80 per cent of those who come forward are rejected for one reason or another.

Women wanting to become pregnant by artificial insemination can express preferences about the genetic profile of the donor, but there is nothing like the questionnaire distributed by the Florence clinic, in which would- be mothers are asked whether they want straight hair or curly, green eyes or blue, dark skin or light.

Legislation is particularly tricky because of the intransigence of the Church and of the various Christian Democrat political parties, but after much delay, parliament is hammering out a law to regulate this most delicate of health sectors - including a motion to abolish the collection of sperm for profit.