It appeared to start off well. In the heat of the debate on the controversial amendments to the Embyro Protection Act, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca stood up and told politicians to slow down and think it well. The issues being discussed were extremely serious, concerning life itself.
The government appeared to listen. It pretended to make changes. Altruistic surrogacy was pulled out of the Bill to be presented at a later stage and the anonymity previously proposed for gamete (sperm and egg) donation was partially lifted. Those were not the only problems, perhaps the most controversial. There still remained embryo freezing, which inherently puts the life of a number of frozen embryos in danger. That did not change.
Embryo freezing was voted for unanimously by all government MPs with the Opposition, significantly, all voting against.
The President comes from the Labour fold. A former social policy minister, she took her leftist, social thinking to the presidency. She was not alone in being against the Bill. Former foreign minister George Vella, another Labour stalwart, was vociferous against the amendments.
Labour’s old guard are clearly alienated from Labour’s new thinking. The pseudo-liberal agenda that has helped the party win so many previously Nationalist-leaning votes often does not go down well with the party hardcore. But impressive electoral successes have muzzled any internal dissent.
The parliamentary vote in favour was uncompromising but it was hardly based on values, considering the Bill devalues life. Labour sells and people like Ms Coleiro Preca and Dr Vella find themselves out in the cold from the party they helped to build.
Yet, Ms Coleiro Preca is also the President. She raised expectations when she sounded the alarm on the amendments. It gave pro-life activists hope. They found a sympathetic ear in the Office of the President but, in the end, the President signed the Bill.
The President made clear she signed the Bill solely out of loyalty to the Constitution meaning she did not agree with it. She said she sought ethical, moral and legal advice and, after long reflection, decided to sign the new law. She made clear the Constitution did not confer upon her legislative functions except that of assenting to Bills. Of course, this was not any Bill.
Saying she is not one to shirk her responsibilities, the President said the challenge society was facing was to protect the weak, “including vulnerable embryos”. The island’s moral fibre was at risk if society disrespected human life and any stage of development. She said all that and signed the Bill.
Truly, the President could not have stopped the Bill, or even change it. She did stand up, an unprecedented event, to speak up for the voiceless. That is all to her credit. But then she signed and the only thing that Health Minister Chris Fearne, who piloted the Bill, would say was that it was the President’s opinion, nothing more.
President Emeritus Ugo Mifsud Bonnici said he would not sign something that went against his conscience. Ms Coleiro Preca did not go that far. She says she had a duty to sign but conscience is a duty too. Public figures enjoy the public’s trust because the people know that, at the end of the day, they would abide by their conscience.
And the President signed the Bill.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial