A parliamentary committee debate on the new IVF law became a heated exchange between the government and the opposition on Monday when the issue of pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos came up.

The shadow minister for health, Stephen Spiteri, initially verbally proposed an amendment providing that prospective parents in consultation with medical experts, would be able to choose whether to have pre-implantation testing of embryos or polar body diagnosis for rare medical conditions listed in the law.

Health Minister Chris Fearne said the government agreed, since that was already provided in the protocol attached to the law.

But when the text of the amendment was formally presented, Fearne said the government totally disagreed, viewing the wording as an attempt to take Malta back years.

The opposition, he said, needed to declare whether it actually agreed with pre-implantation genetic testing or not, because the wording of the amendment would prohibit it.  The wording of the amendment would disallow testing of the embryos if there were alternatives. The amendment also said there must be no risks to the embryo or mother, when everything, even taking an aspirin, involved risks.

Committee chairman Michael Farrugia said that from the medical aspect, this amendment did not make sense.

Spiteri said the opposition was open to further discussion of its amendment. The opposition agreed with testing of embryos where diagnosis so merited. 

Nationalist MP Darren Carabott argued that the issue boiled down to semantics and pre-implantation testing would be retained where needed.  Fearne said principle was involved because this amendment would make the law unworkable. 

Carabott said the opposition amendment would retain pre-implantation testing of embryos where needed. 

After further heated arguments, the discussion was interrupted for consultations by the opposition.

The opposition then withdrew its amendment and replaced it with another with which the government had no objection.  The bill was later unanimously approved by the committee. 

The medical conditions laid down in the law are:

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

All of the listed conditions are severe, acute genetic diseases that in many cases lead to death.

Plans for the introduction of pre-implantation testing of embryos had been criticised when they were announced, with the opposition saying this would  allow couples to choose between those who get to be born and those who do not.

But last week, Opposition leader Bernard Grech said the state should offer polar body testing while retaining embryo testing as an option where needed. He noted that polar body diagnosis  - genetic analysis of oocytes - is almost as effective as pre-implantation genetic testing (PGTM) but it does not run the risk of embryos being discarded.   It can detect all the conditions listed in the law, except for Huntington's Disease. 

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