The state must stop dragging its feet on the issue of assisted reproduction, as it had been doing for too long, the House Social Affairs Committee was told on Monday.

In a discussion with the theme Assisted Procreation - Morality and Law, Rev. Prof. Emmanuel Agius, the dean of the Faculty of Theology and lecturer of philosophical ethics and moral theology at the University of Malta, and a member of the European Group of Ethics, declared that it should be "an honour" to be accused of not going along with all modern reproductive technologies.

Since as yet it had no law on the protection of the embryo, Malta should immediately ratify the Council of Europe's Oviedo Declaration because that made it clear that the human embryo should never be used for the whims of science. The Church opted to give maximum protection to human life.

Rev. Prof. Agius was making the presentation to update the House Social Affairs Committee on the Church's document on human dignity last December to follow up on the instruction Donum Vitae of 1987, with special regard to new threats to human life.

Before the meeting adjourned, committee chairman Edwin Vassallo asked him to eventually revert to the committee with a comparison between the recommendations made by the previous committee, chaired by Clyde Puli, and the Church's latest pronunciation.

Rev. Prof. Agius said the previous committee had made some positive recommendations and suggestions, even though various members had had diverging thoughts on a number of aspects.

Opposition spokesman on social security Michael Farrugia suggested that the committee avail itself of something that was written and take it from there. On cohabitation, the particular problem in Malta was that there was no divorce that allowed one to take a second opportunity in marriage. This essentially led to people who would like to remarry but had to make do with semi-marriage. The country needed direction as soon as possible.

After almost three years, the House still had only a set of recommendations, not enough to go on. He suggested that Rev. Prof. Agius should be allowed to go back over the previous committee's recommendations and revert thereon. The committee should then have time to discuss the situation internally and make its updated recommendations. If Rev. Prof. Agius found he could agree with the previous committee's recommendations, or part of them, that could be considered as real progress.

Nationalist MP Michael Gonzi was under the impression that a member of the Church had said that it was permissible to freeze an embryo. Rev. Prof. Agius categorically said this was a mistake.

Dr Gonzi said the usage of multiple embryos was done also as a measure of protection to the woman who would have gone through IVF, which in itself presented limited guarantees of success. He too did not accept the killing off of an embryo, but what about letting it die?

Rev. Prof. Agius said the mother's health was always an important consideration. Even if the minimum number of embryos was used to prevent the mother's hyper-stimulation, this had still resulted in a large number of embryos not being utilised. Man's primary intention in IVF was to kill the embryos that remained unutilised, and this could never be acceptable. Human life was a fundamental right in any religion.

Dr Farrugia observed that this would be the legislator's major dilemma.

Rev. Prof. Agius said Malta seemed to have lost all sense of direction in the discussion of the issue. At least it should use standard terminology.

On cohabitation, Dr Gonzi asked Rev. Prof. Agius if he thought that some form of legislation on cohabiting couples would lead to less break-ups of such relationships. This would also regulate the offspring of those relationships. Rev. Prof. Agius countered that the law already considered such offspring as not illegitimate. The law would not recognise the relationship, but at least it would ensure that each partner would be given the due amount of dignity.

Earlier, Rev. Prof. Agius had said that the Church's position held good not only for the Catholic politician but also for non-Catholics. The Church could not remain neutral in the face of such speedy developments in bioethics and reproductive technology, also bearing in mind its long history of involvement therein.

The Church's teaching was that every discovery by man throughout history had been ambivalent, potentially doing as much harm as good. Unfortunately people spoke more emotionally than scientifically. Modern concepts of reproductive technology included in vitro fertilisation, babies with several parents, and babies that were cloned using part human and part animal elements. All these raised important questions, not just by the Church as an important stakeholder but also by other quarters.

Questions were raised about the meaning of marriage and the family, homosexual and heterosexual couples, and the link between love and procreation. Science never brought these questions up because its remit was not religious. Its overall interest was a utilitarian philosophy of how many people could be made happy.

About 15 per cent of married couples encountered fertility problems, which could be caused by any one of a myriad of physical or psychological circumstances. Marriage was a communicative relationship and had its own importance, even when not blessed with children. Most infertile couples were ready to explore what modern medicine could offer to help their situation. But were modern methods of conception conducive to the right attitude to such technologies?

One of the Church's four major principles was a couple's right to full information about alternatives, rates of success, financial and other kinds of stress. The Church believed that certain methods of assisted procreation were taking the place of intercourse, reducing the dignity of the married couple.

The second major principle was respect for the dignity and integrity of human life from the very start. At no stage should an embryo be seen as a piece of material for scientific research on the pretext that it was "surplus to needs". Embryos should not be frozen, but the fact that there were now thousands of them was causing a problem in itself. In the US it was said that there were more frozen embryos than living people.

If Malta ever had a law on assisted reproduction, it should copy the UK law which said that there should not be more than two embryos used in each fertilisation. Reproductive cloning was bad, but therapeutic cloning was favourably looked on. Time would tell that this was the right way to go.

Rev. Prof. Agius said it was heartening to note that both sides of the political spectrum agreed on the dignity of human life. Any future law must include the protection and respect of human life, and must protect the family structure. There were too many risks in modern reproductive technology to leave it up to conscience.

The Church's third major principle was safeguarding the family and marriage. Every baby must be born in wedlock in the better interests of the family, which everybody said they wanted to protect. Reproductive facilities should not be encouraged for non-married people, although cohabiting couples posed a problem. Such a decision was up to the state to take.

British statistics showed that only eight per cent of married couples had problems by the time the child was five years old, whereas among cohabiting couples it was 52 per cent. The Church could never look on cohabitation as marriage, but at least the couple's civil rights and duties should be regulated through a legal structure. If a cohabiting partner was infertile, the Church felt that he or she should still not be given assisted reproduction facilities.

The fourth major principle was safeguarding the unborn baby's right to dignity in a suitable environment where to develop its values. Even 20 years ago the Church was against IVF, even for a married couple.

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