The complexity of the fraught human realities of childless couples has been all but lost in the heat and dust that has been generated by government’s IVF Bill. It is tempting to just shrug shoulders and say it is not my problem, that this is simply a decision for the would-be parents to make.
But I cannot. There is a third person involved. Embryos are voiceless, and this government’s IVF Bill is trying to make them invisible. Children, we used to be told, should be seen but not heard. By effectively removing the primary focus on the protection of the embryo, the government is relegating embryos to the status of non-persons.
Because this, at its core, is the most fundamental of four controversies surrounding the IVF proposals. The government has tried to pussyfoot around the issue of abortion for years. But in proposing embryo freezing, it has put the spotlight squarely on the nature of the embryo. One-third of frozen embryos die. On such matters of life and death there can be no equivocation. Does the government consider that life begins at conception, or not?
The second controversy revolves around the nature of parenting. The Bill separates the womb from the mother, not just in the exceptional cases of particular medical conditions, and not limited to a particular relationship between the mother and the owner of the womb. Surrogacy will be available to all, with hardly any safeguards that can be scrutinised by Parliament, as if this is a minor technical matter for the minister’s advisor to concoct.
Nor will this Bill require prospective parents to be in a stable relationship (let alone marriage). A single person is entitled to IVF. Incredibly, the State will have stricter safeguards on parents for fostering than for IVF. And prospective parents freezing their embryos will be required to sign them off for adoption, a world first. Truly, fools are rushing in where wiser heads in more progressive countries are fearing to tread.
The third controversy is about the nature of the State. The IVF law as it now stands is underpinned by the belief that the State has a paramount responsibility to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable, and to mediate between competing claims in a sensitive manner that considers the common good and the path of least harm.
With the current Bill the government has effectively abrogated this responsibility. It plans to reduce itself to a supermarket of reproductive services, for its voter-consumers to choose at will. The value of the life of the unborn has been replaced by the supreme value of the market: personal choice. If you want it, you can have it, so everyone (with a vote) is equal. So that’s all right then.
But there is a fourth controversy that the government could have easily avoided. When Malta was convulsed with the debate on divorce, the discussion was passionate and at times intemperate, but it respected the right of all parties to have their say. The government of the day lost to the popular will, but did not lose its dignity because its position and democratic due process were completely above board. This helped to enshrine divorce not only in the statute books but also in popular culture.
But this government has resorted to subterfuge. The very title of the Embryo Protection Act has become a mockery, a smokescreen for the government’s real intentions. On Dissett last week Health Minister Chris Fearne stated categorically that the selection of embryos to be implanted and to be frozen would be purely at random.
This is not true. Indeed, if a practitioner were not to select the most viable embryos for implantation, in the case of lack of success he could well be sued by his patients for malpractice. Was Minister Fearne lying?
Then there is the issue of timing. Bills with far less controversial and sensitive subject matter go through long months of public consultation and then parliamentary debate. Yet the government wants to pass the IVF Bill in two weeks, to coincide with the six-month anniversary of Daphne’s murder and the Daphne Project revelations.
During the 9/11 attack in 2001 in New York, a UK government aide had suggested that this would be “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”. Our government is engaging in an even more cynical political pincer movement. If the IVF Bill distracts people from the Daphne Project exposés, well and good. If the Daphne Project distracts people from the IVF Bill and government gets to burnish its faux progressive credentials to local and international lobbies, even better.
The Bill will finally land on the desk of President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, who last week addressed a Commonwealth conference on the rights of children. Will she sign it as it stands? She has a choice. We pray that she, at least, chooses to safeguard the unborn.