Our Embryo Protection Act establishes an authority to regulate the sector of assisted reproduction and requires it to publish an annual report on the sector’s state of play. This year’s report, actually the first ever, sees the light of day at a time when government hostility is threatening to undo the consensus that was painstakingly built and which gave birth to the Act in 2012.
In Malta, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), along with other fertility treatments, has been offered since the early 1990s when the ban of the 1970s on the private healthcare sector operators was lifted.
The first Maltese conceived by IVF was in 1991 and 20 years on, the sector was still unregulated. In 2005 as president of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Social Affairs, and following eight months of inquiry and discussion with practitioners, experts and stakeholders I authored a report which included recommendations to legislate on solid foundations, as it eventually did.
I take pride in the fact that I oversaw the first report ever produced by a parliamentary standing committee. It was also a report that cast the net very wide, proving that parliamentarians can set the bar high if they put in the necessary effort and commitment.
We invited experts from a wide range of disciplines but we also heard childless couples whose failure to conceive had had serious consequences including marital breakdown and mental health problems. The encounter convinced me that regulating the sector was urgent but it had to be accompanied by making IVF available for free as part of the public health service.
My heart goes out to those couples and their suffering. And so it is with great joy and satisfaction that I note that last year the IVF/ICSI cycles increased threefold over 2012, the year the legislation was enacted.
The report helped frame the subsequent discussion, both inside and outside Parliament and its content is reflected in the essential elements of the Act.
IVF was kept legal and the regulation it was subject to, included availability of treatment only to couples in a stable relationship, availability of oocyte (unfertilised egg) freezing, the prohibition of surrogacy, gamete donation and embryo freezing except in very particular circumstances where it was unsafe to implant the embryo.
The present legal framework and its ethical underpinnings have proved their worth and any future amendments have to remain true to its spirit
All of this was in the best interests of the child.
In a nutshell, the law, as the report that preceded it, is unequivocally pro-life and pro-child without being unreasonable. And in the end that is why the vote was unanimous in Parliament and, nationally there was wide-reaching consensus with very few the discordant notes.
The view that the regulation of IVF in Malta has generally been a success is vindicated by statistics reporting that 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. Even if it is to be noted that there were slight decreases in the rates in 2015, which have to be further analysed.
As different countries permit different things and measure success differently it may be difficult to compare like with like. But to put things into perspective our 28 per cent success rate compares favourably with the UK’s, for example, where its Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) has recently reported a success rate of 25 per cent and this for a country whose law allows embryo freezing. No wonder a group of local experts concluded that permitting embryo freezing in Maltese law would bring about little added value.
So the reasons behind the Labour Party radicals belittling the success achieved so far and their call for reform after solely three years of introducing the legislation and the practice of oocyte vitrification is, to say the least, suspicious.
With statistics showing oocyte freezing’s comparable success to embryo freezing one wonders about the true motives behind this insistence. Is there really the need to enter into unnecessary ethical conundrums?
Of course continuous investment in technology, professional training and research into the causes of infertility is essential and no one will object to any updating of the law, which is necessary in a sector where the rate of technological change is breathtaking.
But doing away with the fundamental principles of an Act which places the highest premium on the interests of the unborn child is a totally different issue. This is more a matter of protecting the vulnerable rather than tampering with anyone’s liberty.
The present legal framework and its ethical underpinnings have proved their worth and any future amendments have to remain true to its spirit, that is, protecting human life while bringing joy to our families.
Clyde Puli is Nationalist Party spokesman on social dialogue.