Ironic as it may seem, it has become duly commendable to cordon off a public beach in the height of summer to protect the eggs laid by a turtle at Golden Sands, while it is increasingly becoming out of fashion to provide the human embryo with the same level of protection.
Running roughshod over opinions, concerns and sensitivities has been Labour’s signature style of governing in the last four years and it seems that the latest sector in sight is assisted reproduction: a sector that is characterised by widely divergent opinions, legitimate concerns and principled sensitivities is at risk of being shaken up for no other reason than some political back-room deal.
Technology that brings joy to families
In Malta, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), along with other fertility treatments, has been offered since the early 1990s when the socialist ban of the 1970s on private health-care sector operators was lifted by Fenech Adami’s Nationalist administration.
Whilst the first baby born as a result of IVF in the UK was Louise Joy Brown in 1977, the first Maltese conceived by IVF had to wait until 1991. Since then, fertility treatments and assisted reproductive technology has gained both legitimacy and popularity.
Fifteen years on, the sector has advanced but remains unregulated. So the situation then required a legal framework whose ethical underpinnings sought to protect human life whilst bringing joy to our families. That was the task the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Affairs under my chairmanship set to accomplish in 2005.
The social affairs committee and consensus building
For eight intense months, we heard medical practitioners, experts and stakeholders give their views. Exchanges were lively, respectful and always interesting. I made sure that not only did we hear people with expertise in wide range of disciplines but also couples who had experienced fertility problems. Their stories were tinged with pain which, in some cases, had led to the breakdown of their marriage and/or mental health problems. This convinced me even more that whilst regulation was needed, the treatment was to remain available and – more so – available without charge as part of the public health service. And to this end I relentlessly argued in favour whenever and wherever the opportunity arose.
I take pride not only in the fact that this was the first report ever produced by a Parliamentary Standing Committee but also because it provided the impetus to Parliament to legislate and its recommendations were judged to be sufficiently cogent to make them into law. I wrote a report that brought together the views expressed and also made recommendations so that any eventual legislation would be built on solid foundations.
A pro-life piece of legislation
The report’s contents are reflected in the essential elements of the Embryo Protection Act. IVF was kept legal and the requirements to which it was subject included limiting availability to couples in a stable relationship. The freezing of oocytes was permitted while prohibitions were introduced for surrogacy, gamete donation and embryo freezing (except in very particular cases where it was unsafe to implant the embryo). All this was in the best interests of the child yet to be born.
The law, and the report that preceded it, is unequivocally pro-life and pro-child, without being draconian or unreasonable. Those principles, together with the meticulous consensus-building that took place while the report was in the making and the following years, resulted in a general agreement: the parliamentary vote was unanimous and, nationally, the disagreements were few and far between.
A successful piece of legislation
According to a report recently tabled by the Embryo Protection Authority, between January 2013 and June 2015 a total of 411 IVF and ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) cycles were carried out, resulting in 116 pregnancies – meaning a 28 per cent success rate.
This 28 per cent compares favourably with the UK’s success rate of 25 per cent – and this for a country whose laws allow embryo freezing. And despite a marginal fall in the rate in 2015, last year the IVF/ICSI cycles increased threefold over 2012, the year in which the legislation was enacted.
Out of step proposals
With the facts being what they are, and the legislation barely four years old, it is odd that the Prime Minister should be kowtowing to a radical fringe within his Party. Investing in technology and training is fundamental, as is reviewing the law regularly to make sure that it is in step with technological developments. But the law’s basic principles – safeguarding the best interests of the unborn child – should stand.