WARSAW (Reuters) - Bishops of Poland's influential Roman Catholic Church have branded in vitro fertilization (IVF) "the younger sister of eugenics" in a letter aimed at swaying lawmakers ahead of a parliamentary debate.
But their intervention, two weeks after the church condemned the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize for medicine to IVF pioneer Robert Edwards, triggered an unusually sharp response from lawmakers who say the clergy should not meddle in politics.
"The in vitro method comes at great human cost. To give birth to one child ... many humans suffer death at different stages of the medical process," said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters on Tuesday.
The letter alluded indirectly to the practice of eugenics by Nazi Germany during World War Two, which involved ruthless medical experiments on prisoners and ethnic minorities as part of a drive to strengthen the "purity" of the German race.
The bishops' objection centers on the fact that generally multiple eggs are fertilized outside the womb, but not all are subsequently implanted in the mother.
"IVF requires the 'selection' of embryos, which means killing them. It is about selecting weaker human embryos deemed to be unfit," said the letter.
Poland lacks laws precisely regulating IVF. Parliament will debate several bills ranging from a complete ban to ensuring full state co-financing of the procedure.
At present, some 50 clinics perform IVF in Poland and the treatment costs 6,500-15,000 zlotys ($2,300-$5,300), according to statistics compiled by the www.Money.pl website.
Lawmakers from the ruling center-right Civic Platform (PO) party have prepared two rival bills, one relatively liberal and a more conservative one that would only allow the procedure only in a limited number of cases.
The Polish church has in the past called IVF "a sophisticated abortion" and said lawmakers backing it would be deemed "outside the church," a formulation short of formal excommunication but implying they had disobeyed its teachings.
The Polish government's spokesman, Pawel Gras, told Radio Zet: "Such threats and attempts to pressure and to blackmail lawmakers are astonishing ...
"Judging by the reaction of MPs, I think the bishops will have achieved exactly the opposite of what they intended. That is, they will fail in trying to block the (parliamentary) work on in vitro, the work will be accelerated and probably the bill will be passed this year."
Deputies of the small opposition Democratic Left Alliance, which is traditionally critical of church involvement in politics, echoed that criticism, but the main opposition party, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), shares the church's view.
The Polish church has come under fire recently over the support of some priests for the PiS candidate in July's presidential election and also over its role in a dispute over whether to move a large cross erected to remember Poland's late president Lech Kaczynski, killed in a plane crash.
Editing by Gareth Jones and Kevin Liffey