She is Catholic and knows the Church is opposed to in-vitro fertilisation but Eleonora Porcu is a doctor with no moral qualms about her job.

She heads the Infertility and IVF Centre at Bologna University and has been using IVF to help infertile couples conceive.

But Dr Porcu has for the past 15 years practised what she says is “a morally correct” IVF treatment. She has perfected the technique of oocyte vitrification, whereby the woman’s unfertilised eggs are frozen.

This avoids the ethical and moral dilemma created by embryo freezing, which is widely used to preserve the extra embryos created when all of the woman’s harvested eggs are fertilised in a petri-dish.

“IVF with frozen oocytes is still IVF and the Church is against IVF but I wanted to improve the degree of protection for embryos. I try to do IVF in a morally correct way provided it has the same success rate,” she says.

Embryos conceived in a laboratory are vulnerable and the scientific community has a greater responsibility to treat them with respect, Dr Porcu insists.

But some doctors have questioned the pregnancy success rate of using frozen eggs instead of frozen embryos. When the IVF Bill was unveiled by the government recently, one of the first reactions from Maltese practitioners in the field was that by pushing almost exclusively for oocyte vitrification, the law would risk giving women false hope.

The principal argument is that eggs are more susceptible to damage than embryos if frozen and oocyte vitrification is still an experimental technique.

Dr Porcu disagrees. Her clinic has been studying oocyte vitrification since 1996 and she has had some 500 births of children conceived using frozen eggs.

“The level of pregnancies obtained with oocyte vitrification approach those obtained with fresh eggs and equal those obtained with frozen embryos,” she insists.

Dr Porcu says that her clinic, where a third of patients are aged over 40, has a 33 per cent pregnancy success rate. This goes up to 60 per cent in women under 30, which is way above the Italian national average for IVF.

Age is the most important variable in IVF, Dr Porcu notes, but this applies irrespective of whether the eggs used in the process are fresh or frozen.

It all boils down to how well the technique is used, she says, since doctors have to use good oocytes, which are then stored in liquid nitrogen at low temperatures with no fluctuations.

Oocytes can be preserved for years and Dr Porcu says she recently had a patient who got pregnant using an egg that had been stored for 10 years.

Doctors have to be willing to use the technique well because otherwise it would be very easy to prove it doesn’t work, she adds.

Dr Porcu says the proposed Bill provides a good balance between giving couples an adequate chance to successfully become pregnant and protecting embryos.

“Protecting embryos is a good moral standard for everybody, irrespective of religious belief. Destroying embryos is uncomfortable for many people,” she says.

Dr Porcu believes oocyte vitrification gives women more freedom over their fertility. The frozen eggs belong exclusively to them whereas frozen embryos also belong to the male partner. “This is a true revolution,” she says, recalling a case in Ireland when she had to testify in court after a judge had to decide on the fate of frozen embryos belonging to a couple who were passing through a divorce.

However, Dr Porcu admits that oocyte vitrification does not completely eliminate the need for embryo freezing. The Bill does make provisions in exceptional cases.

Dr Porcu says there are cases where transferring the embryo from the petri-dish to the womb could pose a health risk for the woman.

There are other instances such as when the woman has an accident or may even change her mind about the whole process.

“In these instances the embryos will have to be frozen, hopefully to be used at some later stage. No woman can be forced to have embryos transferred to her womb if she does not want them,” Dr Porcu says.

She was invited to deliver a public speech yesterday on assisted procreation by the Justice Ministry that is piloting the IVF Bill.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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