Minister predicts IVF Bill will be amended
Health Minister Joe Cassar told Parliament yesterday that the Embryo Protection Bill could be amended to raise the maximum number of eggs to be fertilised from two to three in special circumstances indicated by medical experts.
Opposition spokesman Michael Farrugia said the Opposition backed the Bill and there were no differences with the Government on its principles.
However, he said, the Opposition disagreed with some provisions. In particular, prospective parents should not need to go before the new authority to seek the go-ahead for IVF treatment as that was a confidential matter within the doctor-patient relationship.
He also raised questions on the limitation of fertilisation to two eggs per cycle.
Introducing the Embryo Protection Bill, which was proposed in second reading by Justice Minister Chris Said, Dr Cassar emphasised that the only aim of the Bill was the protection of the embryo. However, this also involved the IVF process.
The rights of the embryo had to be identified and safeguarded while parents, health professionals and institutions involved had to shoulder obligations and responsibilities.
The pivot of the Bill rested on the belief and conviction that life began the moment the female egg was fertilised. This was the result of extensive research and discussions.
The definition of the term “embryo” stipulated the protection of every cell resulting from the fertilisation process.
Human cloning, production of chimera and hybrids, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and other forms of abuse of embryos were prohibited.
Freezing of human embryos would not be permitted. Instead the Bill permitted the freezing of ova, which took place before fertilisation. Modern technology meant that the prospective mother had no need to undergo repeated cycles of hyper-stimulation of the ovaries.
The Bill permitted embryo freezing only in rare and exceptional cases where the mother was seriously ill or had died. The embryos could be given for adoption if implantation in the woman was not possible.
IVF practitioners were obliged to use the ova-freezing technology and were prohibited from freezing embryos except in exceptional cases.
No more than two ova could be fertilised in every cycle and these had to be transferred immediately to the womb.
The access and use of the IVF service had to be determined by the Authority for the Protection of the Embryo set up under the Bill. The authority had to decide to whom, and when, the service had to be given.
The authority would be independent and its members had to base their decisions on personal judgements without any interference from others. It had to set high ethical standards, issue the licences to IVF clinics, and decide on the adoption of the frozen embryos.
Minister Cassar said that there was significant agreement to eliminate the frozen embryo process.
There were reports of embryo deaths that allegedly took place in other countries and perhaps in Malta.
He referred to statistics given in the House of Commons in 2011 where it was revealed that 30 embryos were created for every live birth. This meant that 3.1 million embryos had been created in 20 years but only 94,090 resulted in live births; 870,000 were frozen and 1.5 million were wasted or used in research and later destroyed.
Dr Cassar said that one had to discuss whether the authority had to decide how many ova should be fertilised in specific cases such as concerning the parents’ age and medical concerns. The fertility rate in women over 34 years of age decreased.
The Pediatricians’ Association had said that more than two embryos in the womb could increase the chance of multiple pregnancies. They said such pregnancies should be avoided because of the resulting consequences. A balance had to be struck between the chance of getting pregnant and the risks involved.
The association approved a resolution that the number of embryos implanted in the womb should be limited to a maximum of two. There were cases where the number of fertilised ova could increase to three. This had to be decided by Parliament.
The Bill also addressed the responsibilities of health professionals who could opt out of the process on matters of conscience.
It obliged the professional to inform the parents in writing and in detail about the methods and effects of the procedure used.
In issuing licences to clinics, the authority would impose conditions relating to the levels of hygiene, apparatus, space and accommodation of the clinic.
Concluding, Dr Cassar said that the Bill was a reflection of years of studies, reports and consultation on such a delicate matter.
The Government weighed ideas from all sectors of Maltese society. It felt it was necessary to regularise this sector, that one should be of assistance to couples that experienced difficulties and to protect embryos with all possible means.
Dr Farrugia said that the Bill should not serve as “the big brother” undermining the health profession. It was clear that those who drafted the Bill was not conversant with the health sector, more importantly with IVF.
The principal aim should not only be the protection of embryos, which was important, but also that the couple be given an opportunity and hope.
About 10 per cent of couples faced difficulties when trying to conceive.
These principles should be applicable in an environment where the medical profession was given the necessary tools to perform its functions.
The Bill only imposed fines and imprisonment to the medical profession.
He said the Bill was rushed and superficial, with some provisions indicating serious lack of thought and consideration of the matter by the legislator. It was even strange that the term “in-vitro fertilisation” was nowhere to be found in the Bill.