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IVF: why it’s wiser to wait

The proposed amendments to the Embryo Protection Act have caused the sort of controversy one expects when the burning issue of the respect due to incipient human life is juxtaposed with the very human and legitimate desire of childless couples – and others – to bear children and raise a family.

However, the questions raised by these amendments go beyond problems connected with life in the womb and the extent to which we are justified in “creating’’ lives in Petri dishes: if enacted as proposed, these amendments will lead to the loss of what can be strongly argued are human lives – even persons, if one accepts the reasoning of MP Godfrey Farrugia on page 26. The changes will also affect those born till the day they die.

The main proposals relate to three areas. First, the possibility of increasing the number of eggs fertilised in each cycle from two to three in the first cycle and five in subsequent cycles. Embryos which are not implanted will be frozen for reuse by the same woman or given up for adoption by others seeking to become parents.

Then there is the donation of sperm and ova, enabling lesbian couples and single women to become parents through the use of assisted reproductive technology (ART). And further, surrogacy, or the practice of bearing a child which is then raised by others.

Embryo freezing is not a new concept in the Maltese context. Current legislation allows for the possibility in the event of an unforeseen difficulty between fertilisation and implantation. However, it will now become the rule rather than the exception. This immediately conjures alarming images of the stockpiling of surplus embryos, a problem the government believes it will solve through embryo donation to those seeking to become parents.

However, despite the good intentions, embryo donation is almost certainly a fanciful notion: which would-be parents will choose to adopt somebody else’s embryo when modern technology permits the conception of a child wholly or partially genetically related to the parents?

Once embryos begin to accumulate, will they be left in the freezer until they decay? Will numbers become a problem to the extent that the law will have to be changed to allow embryos to be donated for research? Equally, if not more importantly: is the planned, routine freezing of human embryos compatible with the dignity with which they deserve to be treated? The answer seems to be an emphatic “No.”

Nor is it lost on commentators the irony inherent in legislation which purports to promote equality while allowing discrimination between embryos when it comes to the selection of those which will be implanted and those consigned to cold storage.

The governemnt has so far failed to respond adequately to the accusations that it may be breaching human rights and as good as introducing practices which smack of eugenics.

Gamete donation also presents difficulties, particularly of a psychological nature, related to children’s feeling of rejection by their biological parents. Now that the government has signalled that it will attempt to do away with anonymity of the donor parent, a hefty chunk of the problems associated with this practice should thankfully be averted. However the identity of the donor – and of the parents of any embryos donated for adoption – should be made known to the official parents immediately. It makes no sense to wait until the child is 18, not when we emphasise their right to identity and when the age to vote and for sexual consent has been lowered to 16.

Surrogacy will only be introduced after consultation, since the government is aware that it has no mandate to legalise this practice and is prepared to wait. Laudably, the Minister for Health has ruled out the legalisation of commercial surrogacy, but altruistic surrogacy, despite its connotations of generosity, also presents grave problems of a psychological, social and legal nature. The practice is perceived to be exploitative of women and is banned in a number of European countries. In fact the failure to comment by some local women’s groups – which vociferously demanded sexual and reproductive health and abortion rights a few weeks ago – is incomprehensible.

The government’s  stated intention to eventually grant altruistic surrogacy legal status through a legal notice – rather than after a full parliamentary debate – has caused more than a murmur of dissatisfaction.

The government’s good intentions are not doubted. Its commitment to helping couples complete their families is praiseworthy. The fact that to accomplish this noble aim it may sacrifice the rights of the unborn and endanger the future welfare of a number of children born of ART under the proposed amendments points to a rushed legislative process which does not do justice to the complexity of the issue.

The government would do well do heed the wise advice of the President. What is required is a proper hiatus between the second and third readings in Parliament, which would ensure that there is an adequate period of reflection and consultation before the amendments are approved.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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