Call for modern laws on paternity, embryo protection
The absence of a bioethics law makes Malta the most liberal country, as nothing is excluded - MP
The government was yesterday urged to urgently update the law on paternity cases and to move legislation on embryo protection.
Labour MP Josè Herrera said the law needed to recognise DNA evidence as being sufficient to prove paternity.
"The current situation is such that several men have been forced by the courts to financially maintain children who were not their own, even while their estranged wives live with the biological fathers," Dr Herrera said.
Dr Michael Asciak (PN) said the country needed a law to protect the embryo not just in the womb but also in the laboratory.
"The absence of such a law means we could be helping those who want to abuse. Malta could be sinning by omission."
The comments were made in Parliament during the debate on the Human Blood and Transplants Bill.
Dr Herrera said that while both sides agreed on technical legislation such as this, there was an urgent need for the House to tackle the law which governed paternity cases.
It was unacceptable that law still stated that a man had to prove the adultery of his wife within six months of the birth of a child and that DNA evidence was not sufficient to prove a case. The husband had to prove that he was in the physical impossibility of cohabiting with his wife.
The problem was that a husband and wife could be separated but still living in the same house. The courts had, for a time, therefore started to give a wider meaning to physical impossibility and allowed DNA evidence.
But on June 13, 2005, the Appeals Court ruled that DNA on its own was not sufficient to prove paternity or otherwise and the man had to prove he had been away from the woman between 300 and 180 days - invoking legislation that had been drafted when DNA was still unknown. This had effectively overturned many judgments that had released men from paying maintenance to adulterous wives who had children by other men.
Dr Herrera said this banal injustice made it urgent for the legislator to update the law.
This need was further reinforced by a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on January 12 in favour of Maurice Mizzi when it held that it was wrong of the Maltese courts to deny Mr Mizzi the right to present DNA evidence to prove he was not the father of his former wife's daughter.
Unfortunately, the court at Strasbourg could not order the Maltese government to change legislation, but only to pay compensation for invasion of privacy of family life.
In the meantime, Maltese courts had found themselves bound by the Appeals Court decision and could not accept the DNA evidence.
Earlier in the debate, Jason Azzopardi (PN) insisted that the House should legislate on regulating bioethics.
Malta was the most liberal country on earth as far as bioethics were concerned because since there was no law, nothing was excluded. Coherence with the values that Malta professed demanded such legislation, and whoever was serious did not mind being regulated.
Dr Azzopardi said many European countries did not have specific legislation on cord blood banking, which was a relatively new phenomenon. It was important that Malta should develop a conscience on this topic. In keeping with national priorities on health, there would be a time when this service would need to become available on the national health service.
Among lines of thought in various EU member countries, France was unique in holding that if the state was not in a position to provide such services as cord blood banking, the private sector should not be allowed to do it.
There were several ethical principles that needed to be safeguarded. The fact that certain states had felt the need to legislate about cord blood banking meant that Malta too should have its own framework. It was an area in which both the private sector and the state would ultimately have to set up shop for cord blood banking, which did not involve the same ethical and moral issues as other forms of banking and transplantation. Taking cells from the umbilical cord meant doing away with the ethical and moral issues involved in embryonic stem cells.
Indeed, it should be made clear in the definitions clause of this Bill that the definition of cells excluded embryonic stem cells.
Speaking on the donation of organs, Dr Azzopardi said the legislation should provide that unless a person was specifically against the donation of its own organs after death, such organs were automatically considered to be donated.
Dr Asciak said it was a problem that Maltese law was not keeping up with scientific advancement.
When it came to proving paternity through the use of DNA testing, for example, it was very important that the law was revised to catch up with scientific breakthroughs. If this did not happen, there was a danger of breaching a person's fundamental rights.
Dr Asciak insisted that Malta needed an Embryo Protection Act to protect embryos both in the womb and in the laboratory. Lack of legislation such as this opened the door to abuse. Malta would be sinning by omission if such laws were not enacted.
Malta could not remain without a framework legislation which protected the human embryo. This had been discussed at length within the debate on bioethics in the Social Affairs Committee and Parliament should not drag its feet further. If the problem was over when life was deemed to start, one could opt for the Church position and say life started from fertilisation or conception.
There was also need for legislation against pre-natal genetic testing and stem cell research.
"Do we know if genetic testing for insurance, educational, or employment purposes have been conducted in Malta?"
One had to be careful to protect an individual's right to privacy when dealing with genetic testing.
In certain countries, it had become common practice that insurance companies only offered clients a cover if they accepted to take a genetic test.
The Orvieto convention, which Malta had wanted to sign for at least five years, stated that the individual himself has the right not to know his genetic profile, Dr Asciak said.
In this context of a law regulating the collection of cord blood, one had to make sure that private banks provided the correct information to patients once it cost some Lm700 to store a baby's umbilical cord blood and since one did not know for sure whether the stored blood would ever be used.
Secondly, he added, if this was a life-saving process, it should be accessible to everyone, and it thus followed that a national register of cord blood should be set up making the process accessible even to those families who could not afford to pay for storing their children's cord blood.
Dr Asciak said Malta should continue making it clear with its EU partners that the union's funds should not be used to finance research which went against moral stands adopted by certain countries. Britain and France, for example, were lobbying for the financing of embryonic stem cell research to be included in the seventh framework programme (FP7). A number of countries including Malta, Italy, Austria, Germany and Portugal were objecting to this proposal and it was important that the government kept firm since EU taxpayers' funds should not fund research which was deemed unethical.
Joe Falzon (PN) said it was a pity that the number of blood donations in Malta had decreased. The drop could be attributed to various reasons, but a major potential factor could be the problem of the location of the national blood transfusion centre near the Detox Centre. Mr Falzon praised companies and local councils which organised blood donations.
Private initiatives such as Mr Robert Arrigo's sponsorship of the blood mobile unit were also praiseworthy.
Winding up, Health Minister Louis Deguara said many valid points had been raised, even though they did not all pertain to the Bill. But they would entice the House to tackle the updating of legislation to present-day standards.
One such point was the legal strength of the donor card and whether a surviving relative could deny the dead person's wishes to donate his/her own organs.
Public campaigns had effectively tackled the fear of picking up infections when one went to donate blood.
A number of NGOs had done sterling work in creating a national conscience in favour of the donation of organs. This aspect would involve a change of culture in the outlook of bereaved relatives who feared that the medical team might skimp on real efforts to heal the person so that they could take out its organs. This was intrinsically untrue.
Another shortcoming was the unavailability of counselling on organ donation for relatives of a dying person.
The minister underlined the importance of blood donations, although he pointed out that Malta was not at a stage, as in Greece, of having to cancel operations because of a shortage of blood supplies.
The question had been asked why Malta had not yet ratified and signed international conventions in this sector. It was interesting that the UK had not signed such conventions because they were held to be restrictive, while Germany was reluctant to sign because they were held to be too liberal. Countries like Malta should take care to wait and see developments in research and testing before joining any specific bandwagon too soon.
Dr Deguara said the European Assisted Conception Consortium had asked EU countries to nominate representatives to examine how assisted conception affected ethics and embriology. Malta would nominate its own three representatives soon.
Both sides of the House would also be working together on the issues involved in the donation and transplantation of organs, which were still relatively scarce.
Dr Deguara said the problem of the national blood transfusion centre being located near the Detox Centre was a real one that needed to be tackled seriously.
On a call Opposition leader Alfred Sant for the Opposition to be involved in preparations against the avian flu, Dr Deguara said the health and rural affairs ministries were completely open in their preparations, but nonetheless the Opposition was welcome to nominate a representative to sit on the inter-ministerial committee handling this issue.
It was important, though, that the committee's plans were seen with the sensitivity they deserved so that one did not stir panic. He had no doubt about the opposition's very genuine desire to be part of all that went on in the interests of public health.
The Bill was unanimously given a second reading.