In the IVF process, the Embryo Protection Act lays down that, in general, only two eggs may be fertilised before being transferred back to the woman. Cryopreservation, or freezing, of embryos is presently against the law, save in exceptional circumstances related to the woman’s ill-health or change of mind about having a baby.
The Prime Minister and the Health Minister want to change that. They argue that offering embryo freezing to more women would increase the birth rate from IVF, which stands at eight per cent.
Some of the proposals made have gradually trickled out, mainly volunteered in reply to probing by the press. One of them is for a maximum of five eggs to be fertilised during a cycle and for two at most to be transferred, those most likely to result in a successful pregnancy. The rest would have to be frozen and, if still viable, possibly used by the same woman in another cycle or given up for adoption if she goes beyond the age of fertility.
The method of freezing being looked into is ‘vitrification’, which, according to the Health Minister, allows for the survival of 90 per cent of embryos on thawing.
Notwithstanding, the proposals have come under heavy fire from the pro-life lobby and the Church. They hold that an embryo is a human being and that freezing it, with the risk of destruction this entails, is tantamount to the annihilation of a human life.
The fear too is that this step may pave the way for the legalisation of abortion.
The government appears to be giving these arguments short shrift, with Joseph Muscat saying he is determined to introduce embryo freezing. The priority is to fulfil the often painful, desperate yearnings of childless couples. Looking at it from the other side of the fence, this too constitutes a strong case.
Another argument often made in favour is that a few cells with no brain, no heart, no lungs and no sensitivity cannot be deemed a human being.
Also falling on the side of embryo freezing would be a recent European Court of Human Rights judgment that an embryo from IVF represents a constituent part of the person’s identity.
The issue, especially in a country with such deeply-held beliefs about the sanctity of life, demands a meaningful, informed public debate and no undue haste. Only fools rush in.
The changes to the law are being discussed within an interministerial committee and with stakeholders. Unfortunately, there has been no real attempt yet to widen the discussion. So far, it has been dominated by the views of members of pro-life groups, who have also instituted a petition against embryo freezing, and the isolated comments from the government side that smack of a fait accompli.
It is imperative that once the proposals take a more definite form, time is allowed for thorough public scrutiny.
There will never be consensus on the fundamental question of when individual human life begins but public opinion, honed by expert views from all sides, must be given its due weight in a broad, civil, non-emotive, open-minded exchange before any changes to the law are attempted.
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil rightly called for public consultation on the matter. While this is not a political issue, the Nationalist Party would then be expected to weigh in on the discussion by clarifying its own stand. And the government will have a duty to listen to what is being said by all and then act accordingly.
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