By MARIA CHENG, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — More than three decades after Britain produced the world's first test-tube baby, Europe is a patchwork of restrictions for people who need help having a child.
Many countries have strict rules on who is allowed to get fertility treatments. And recent court rulings suggest nothing's likely to change anytime soon.
France and Italy forbid single women and lesbian couples from using artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, or IVF, to conceive. Austria and Italy are among those banning all egg and sperm donations for IVF. Germany and Norway ban donating eggs, but not sperm.
Countries including Sweden require couples to have a stable relationship for at least a year to qualify for fertility treatment. Switzerland, among others, requires couples to be married.
And nearly everywhere in Europe except Ukraine, couples are banned from hiring a woman to carry a pregnancy for them.
"These laws are completely out of date," said Dr. Francoise Shenfield, a fertility expert at University College London.
"It's a medical treatment and the decision to treat should be up to doctors," not judges, said Shenfield, an ethics expert for the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology.
Placing bans on egg and sperm donation is "discriminating against infertile couples," she added, although she acknowledged there were valid medical reasons for not treating some patients, like women over 50.
The European laws stand in contrast to comparatively few restrictions elsewhere, including in the U.S., Australia, Brazil and Canada.
Experts estimate thousands of Europeans travel to another country each year for help having a baby, though exact figures aren't recorded. Many are single women who go abroad to get artificial insemination, which is banned for single women in countries including Sweden, Germany and Italy.
Marie Eriksson, a 36-year-old single mother in Sweden, described the restrictions as prejudice. "Having a child is not a right, but the possibility should not be forbidden because you don't have a partner," she said.
Eriksson, a librarian, traveled to a fertility clinic in Denmark after deciding she wanted to have a child on her own. "The alternative was to go out and meet a stranger at a pub," she said.
She gave birth to her daughter, Sonja, in 2008. "It was totally worth it," she said of the seven treatments she paid for.
Reasons for the restrictions vary from country to country. Many cite concerns about creating "unnatural" relationships between donors, parents and children. Others are driven by religious or cultural objections.
Recent attempts to change the laws have so far failed. Last November, the European Court of Human Rights upheld an Austrian regulation that forbids using sperm and egg donors for IVF.
In that case, two married couples sued the Austrian government, arguing the ban violated their right to a "private and family life" under the European Convention on Human Rights. The court ultimately ruled the restriction was justified and cited problems like "splitting motherhood" between a biological mother and the woman carrying the fetus.
"I'm often dumbfounded by the position some European countries take on IVF," said Dr. Norbert Gleicher, medical director of the Center for Human Reproduction, a private clinic in New York City.
The restrictions in many European countries would be unthinkable in the U.S., Gleicher said, adding about 40 percent of his patients travel from abroad, many from Europe.
In Sweden, lawmakers are considering whether to change the law so that all single women have access to fertility treatment.
Eriksson said the restrictions no longer match reality. "There are so many different kinds of families today that it is not sustainable to maintain laws and regulations based on traditional family ideals," she said.
For IVF, women must undergo hormone stimulation to produce eggs and a procedure to extract them from the ovaries. Embryos are created by mixing sperm and eggs together in a lab, then transferred into a woman's womb.