Parliament will start debating a new IVF law on Wednesday, with the changes expected to be the first major piece of legislation introduced since the March general election.

It is still unclear whether the Opposition will back the government's proposed amendments, but several NGOs have already lauded the proposals, while others harshly criticised them.

Here is all you need to know.

The government is delivering on an election promise to amend the IVF law within its first hundred days in office.

That law was last amended in 2018, when it upped the number of eggs that could be fertilised to five, allowed sperm and egg donation, and access to IVF for gay and single women.

The government is now proposing to further widen state-provided IVF services.

It wants persons to be eligible for IVF up till the age of 45 (rather than 42), offer more IVF cycles free of charge, extend IVF to those who already have a child and facilitate egg donations and transfer of embryos from other countries.

But most controversially, the government wants to allow doctors to perform genetic tests on IVF embryos before they are planted into the womb. They will be on the lookout for a number of relatively rare, genetic conditions, such as Huntington's Disease, that the baby might carry and develop when it is born.

There are nine specific disorders, which Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne said were largely conditions that the baby would develop almost immediately after birth and die of them "in a few weeks or months".

"We will allow our doctors to use the latest medical technology to avoid heartbreaking stories of babies who are born with the certainty that they will die in a few weeks or months," he said.

They are:

  • Finnish Nephrotic Syndrome,
  • Gangliosidosis,Huntington's Disease,
  • Joubert Syndrome,
  • Maple Syrup Urine Syndrome,
  • Nemaline Myopathy Spinal Muscular Atrophy,
  • Tay-Sachs DiseaseWalker
  • Warburg Syndrome

"425 new lives were born out of IVF so far, and today we will continue to increase the opportunity for more new lives."

Genetic testing would allow parents to learn of complications their child could have if they go ahead with the implantation of that embryo. Parents would then be free to choose not to have that embryo implanted.

Embryos bearing these conditions will be frozen, though they may also be given up for adoption. 

Details of the proposed genetic testing are still unclear, but they will be included in a protocol document that will be tabled in parliament on Wednesday.

Where does the PN stand?

The PN has yet to express its position clearly.

On Saturday, Stephen Spiteri, a doctor and the PN's health spokesperson, argued that the proposed bill is discriminatory due to its genetic testing provisions.

The bill would allow couples to choose between those who are born and those who are not, Spiteri said.

"Perfection is not the only gauge to success. If we do not keep this in mind from the start, everything will crumble and the rest will be just empty words," Spiteri argued in a Facebook post.

What about civil society? 

The NGO Doctors for Choice has lauded the proposed amendments, saying they will help couples get accessible and safe medical treatment which they have a right to.

But 13 other NGOs and organisations have hit out at the proposed law, arguing that what the government is proposing is "nothing short of eugenics".

Embryos with genetic conditions will probably never be adopted, they fear, noting that the stockpile of frozen embryos "has risen from 180 to over 300 this year", with none adopted so far.

"Such methods do not deliver a healthy baby but provide a tool to enable the selection of which baby will live and which baby will be frozen in perpetuity," they said.

They argue there are "serious consequences" when the fundamental human principle that no person should determine who is to live and who is to die is breached.

Doctors for Choice disagree, saying such statements are "an insult to couples with genetic disorders".

"It is heartless to continue telling these disadvantaged couples 'sorry, Malta cannot help you, go get what you need abroad at your own expense.' We can do better than this," they said.

"Worse still a lack of empathy towards parents seeking to raise children free of exceptional health conditions which have caused suffering in their own families. Embryos are not babies. Most embryos fail to produce a viable pregnancy, let alone a baby," they said. 

An opposing NGO, Doctors For Life, also came out against the proposed bill last week, arguing that "the law does not eliminate illness but eliminates the ill. It merely identifies the sick ones and discards them".

They suggested that limited screening for genetic conditions could be done on the female eggs before the formation of an embryo, with a method called Polar Body Testing which offers the possibility of detecting an abnormal number of chromosomes as well as maternal single-gene diseases.

But Doctors for Choice told MaltaToday that this procedure is limiting, labour-intensive and carried a higher risk of misdiagnosis.

Gozo bishop Anton Teuma has also criticised the proposed law, arguing that while he is in no position to tell the government how to legislate, he felt it is his duty to guide Christians as to what is morally right.

He said there is nothing wrong with testing to improve the health of an embryo, but testing aimed at choosing who gets to be born and who does not is morally wrong, and storing embryos in a bank is like sentencing them to "death forever".

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us