Italian fashion icons Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana set off a firestorm of controversy over the weekend when they referred to IVF babies as "synthetic" and implied that same-sex couples shouldn’t raise kids. Not surprisingly, the remarks sparked an instant boycott of the duo's label, led by Sir Elton John and other prominent gay parents.
“The only family is the traditional one. No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed,” the gay pair told Panorama, one of Italy’s most influential magazines.
“You are born to a mother and a father—or at least that’s how it should be," Dolce explained, according to translations. "I call children of chemistry, synthetic children.”
As insensitive as the remarks are, it turns out they are depressingly reflective of Italy’s larger bias against in-vitro fertilization. One blatant example? It’s currently illegal for same-sex couples to seek out IVF in the country. The country only allows married couples to undergo the treatment—and it doesn't allow gay marriage.
Italy is, of course, deeply Catholic, and many of its conservative laws reflect its religious ideologies. To better understand how Dolce and Gabbana's beliefs may have formed in the first place, we took a look at the country's history of harsh IVF policies. Here's what you should know.
Prior to 2004, Italy had fairly liberal laws governing in-vitro fertilization. Then Silvio Berlusconi's center-right passed the controversial Law 40. (After all, Berlusconi is a model of traditional family values.) Under the new policy, IVF became subject to ultra-conservative restrictions geared toward protecting every embryo created. The law ruled that:
- Only married couples could undergo fertility treatment (no singles or same-sex partners).
- A given IVF treatment could only fertilize three eggs at a time—and fertilized embryos could not be frozen.
- All three embryos created had to be implanted, even if doing so was not medically advised.
- Parents were not allowed to check if embryos were at risk for certain genetic disorders (medically known as pre-implanatation genetic diagnosis). If the embryo was doomed—oh well.
- No surrogates were allowed.
- No sperm or egg donation was allowed.
The law's harsh restrictions sparked a backlash, with many doctors speaking out about the medical dangers of limiting IVF in the ways specified. The medical community was especially enraged about the rule governing the number of embryos that could be implanted—which led to women having to undergo multiple invasive rounds of treatment—and the ban on genetic testing, which resulted in babies being born with disorders that could have been avoided.
Finally, in 2009, the Italian Constitutional Court struck down some of the law's restrictions. Doctors could now freeze embryos, decide how many were needed to achieve pregnancy, and implant them accordingly.
Three years later, in 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy must officially allow genetic testing. The ruling came after an Italian couple who were carriers for cystic fibrosis—and whose first child had the disease—wanted to have their second child using IVF and test to make sure the embryo they implanted was free of the disease. The court ruled that Italy's law violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
In April 2014, Italy's Constitutional Court ruled that the ban on sperm and egg donation was unconstitutional, as it violated a couple's right to have children. And yet, while it's now legal to donate an egg, it's still illegal to pay an egg donor. "It must be an altruistic donation," Pasquale Patrizio, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale, told Fusion.
Particularly pertinent to this week's Dolce and Gabbana controversy: The court did not strike down the ban against non-married or same-sex couples seeking IVF. For these would-be parents, in-vitro still is not an option.
As many media outlets have pointed out, in 2006, Gabbana told the Daily Mail that he, in fact, wanted to have a biological child of his own through IVF—that he had found a surrogate and was looking into options. However, he also told the Mail, "I am opposed to the idea of a child growing up with two gay parents. A child needs a mother and a father. I could not imagine my childhood without my mother. I also believe that it is cruel to take a baby away from its mother."
Of course, assuming he was either single or part of a same-sex couple, Gabbana couldn't have had a child with a surrogate—not in Italy in 2006, and not in Italy now. He would have had to leave his home country and become a reproductive tourist. In fact, he wouldn't be allowed to seek out any sort of fertility treatment in his country today.
Against this backdrop, Dolce and Gabbana's remarks seem almost like resignation.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.