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Minister promises further consultation as parliament ends second reading debate of new IVF law

Parliament's second reading debate on the controversial Embryo Protection Bill closed on Tuesday with a promise by Health Minister Chris Fearne to hold further consultation and to move some amendments, although he did not go into specifics.

Mr Fearne condemned the partisan nature of the debate. He observed that a report published by the Embryo Protection Agency last February confirmed that, as the law stood, 88% of embryos fertilised following oocyte vitrification (egg freezing) did not result in viable pregnancies. Embryo freezing would have a success rate of more than double that, resulting from the process currently allowed by law.

If amending the law could give a better chance of conceiving to even one of the 26 couples who had failed to conceive a baby during the IVF cycle held at Mater Dei nine months ago, that would be “a new miracle,” he said.

Having been present for all 42 interventions made in the House, Mr Fearne said that he would be proposing amendments to the Bill after considering valid input
from Opposition members.

Referring to interventions by Opposition MPs Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and Simon Busuttil during that same sitting, he said that his amendments would address the Bill’s usage of “embryo,” “fertilised cell,” and “fertilised egg,” changing all instances of these to “embryo.”

He expressed an openness to reconsider provisions granting perpetual anonymity to gamete donors.

Mr Fearne also reiterated that the regulations governing surrogacy would be subject to widespread consultation before the publication of a legal notice introducing it. The principle, he said, would be to avoid the criminalization of “acts of love” by relatives or friends who wished to carry to term babies who, for medical reasons, could not be borne by their own mothers.

The Health Minister proposed a period of consultation before the Bill’s committee stage, saying that he was open to mature contributions from the public and from MPs.

Although he had proposed, before the House Business Committee, that this committee stage take place during an extra plenary session so as to allow all MPs to contribute, he stated that the Opposition had turned down this proposal.

During Tuesday’s debate, Opposition MP Clyde Puli said that nobody from the Opposition was against IVF, and referred to the Opposition Leader’s pledge that a PN administration would ensure that every step of the process was free of charge. Referring to criticisms levelled against a declaration sent to Parliament by 100 University of Malta academics as “laughable,” he argued that the arguments made by Government MPs reflected a line of thinking which ran
through many laws which had recently come before the House, and hid the true views held by those proposing them.

He challenged the government to “call a spade a spade” and to declare when it believed that life began.

SIMON BUSUTTIL: AN ETHICAL LINE HAS BEEN CROSSED

Declaring that he too would be voting against the Bill, Simon Busuttil said that his objections were not religious in nature, and that the law had crossed an ethical line. The present law offered an alternative which did not involve the moral ambiguity posed by embryo freezing, an alternative which, he said, had proven to be “avante-garde” and successful.

Mr Fearne’s claim that an embryo was merely “eight cells” was disrespectful towards embryos, ultimately implying that it did not matter what happened to them.

Dr Busuttil said that one of the government’s key reasons for amending the present law - that it discriminated against LGBT couples - was not valid, because the inability of same-sex couples to conceive was discrimination inherent to nature itself.

He also criticised the proposed introduction of altruistic surrogacy, which amounted to the exploitation of women to the greatest possible degree and for which the government had no mandate.

Opposition MP Karol Aquilina, who stated that the law was being pushed through
Parliament simply to distract the public from other things afoot in Maltese politics.

Dr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici argued that any law of this sort required widespread popular consensus which was not limited to a single party. Independently of whatever changes were made in the end, he said, the Bill had already gotten off on the wrong foot.

As agreed by the House Business Committee, a division vote will be held on May 23.

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