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Two of a kind: moral dilemmas in Poland and Malta

Conservative governments embattled by their approach to IVF and cohabitation laws: Poland and Malta have that very moral dilemma.

James Debono
4 September 2012, 12:00am
On the face of it, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (left) and his Maltese counterpart Lawrence Gonzi appear to be coming from a similar place when on the issue of IVF... but how they differ on the issue is very telling
Just as Malta, the Polish parliament is currently debating two highly symbolic laws: one regulating IVF and the other regulating cohabitation and same sex partners.

And just as in Malta, the ruling party Civic Platform a member of the European People's Party is trying to strike a balance between its conservative and liberal factions.

Much like the Nationalist Party, Civic Platform is a broad church, accommodating both liberal and conservative elements, gelled together by free market economics and a pro-European outlook.

But there is one notable difference. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is clearly steering his party to adopt a more liberal position, by pushing for an IVF law, which allows embryo freezing. 

Still, unlike Malta - where the opposition vaguely but surely supports a more liberal stance - Tusk faces not just opposition from his own party but also from a rival and even more conservative party which constitutes the main opposition grouping. 

Moreover, Poland's multiparty democracy has also given birth to a new liberal political force: the Palitikot a social  liberal party founded by a former Civil Platform MP, which captured a tenth of the Polish vote in elections in 2011. The party favours gay marriages, decriminalisation of soft drugs and unrestricted IVF access.  Over the past months Malta's third party AD has adopted similar stances.

While Law and Justice threatens Tusk from the right, Palikot - which appeals to new middle class voters - threatens Tusk from the left.

Changing landscapes

Like Malta, public opinion in Poland is becoming more liberal. Recent surveys suggest more than half the population supports at least some sort of legal recognition for same-sex couples, if not marriage. More than two thirds oppose any ban on IVF treatment. As in Malta, conservatives - including the hierarchy of the Catholic Church - are resisting change. As The Economist recently commented, they are doing so all the more strongly "for sensing that they are swimming against the tide".

As their Maltese counterparts, the Polish bishops famously described the practice as "refined abortion". But the strong language of the local bishops pales in comparison to the more bellicose threats of the Polish clergy, who have threatened to   excommunicate MPs who vote for IVF. In October 2010, Archbishop Henryk Hoser said that MPs who supported IVF would "find themselves automatically outside the community of the Church".

Government spokesperson Pawel Graz described the Church's threats as "blackmail".

The IVF divide in Poland

As in Malta in the absence of any legislation, IVF is legal in Poland - but it has to be done in a private clinic. But as in Malta, the practice is still unregulated and not available for free in public hospitals.

As in Malta, discussion on IVF has been going on for years. Campaigning against the arch conservative Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Tusk pledged in his 2006 election campaign to ensure availability and universal access to IVF, which is provided by approximately 40 centres throughout Poland.

But while in Malta the conservative line seems to have prevailed with government - presenting a law which rules out embryo freezing - in Poland, ruling centre-right Civic Platform party is split, with the prime minister favouring a law which allows embryo freezing and his justice minister Jaoslaw Gowin favouring a ban on freezing.

Recordings of a parliamentary group meeting obtained by Polish Newsweek, a weekly magazine, revealed that Donald Tusk had threatened to expel Jaroslaw Gowin, the justice minister from the party if he didn't toe the line on IVF.

Gowin is proposing a law which would limit IVF to married couples and outlaw the freezing of embryos, which makes the technique considerably more effective and cheaper. 

Gowin's draft law is even more conservative than that being proposed in Malta, which would allow heterosexual cohabiting couples to resort to IVF and allows freezing in exceptional circumstances.

On his part, Tusk is supporting the more liberal law presented by Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska.

Unlike the Maltese law, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska's draft law permits IVF and associated procedures, including embryo freezing.

But as in Malta and unlike the more conservative draft championed by Poland's justice minister, it does not limit IVF to married couples but would make it available for all those in a heterosexual relationship.

The problem for Tusk is that the law would not pass if a sizeable chunk of its members vote with the opposition law and justice party, the main opposition party in Poland, which unlike Malta's Labour Party is more conservative.

On its part, the conservative law and justice party has called for prison sentences for doctors carrying out IVF procedures. But the party has already hinted at its willingness to compromise with conservatives in Civic Platform to block the more liberal proposal.

What makes compromise difficult in civic platform are the diametrically divergent views on freezing embryos, which makes the two rival bills irreconcilable. 

This is no longer the case in Malta, where a compromise accepted by more liberal MPs has been reached.

Nationalist MP Jean Pierre Farrugia had chaired the IVF parliamentary committee which favoured embryo freezing. But now, the MP says that this issue has been superseded by scientific developments in oocyte vitrification, a process that involves the freezing of a woman's ova instead of embryos. Although promising, the new technology is considered to be more expensive and is still in the process of being developed.

In both Malta and Poland, the private sector has not been keen on regulation. In Malta, Josie Muscat - who heads a clinic which offers IVF services - expressed reservation on the legal limit of two fertilised eggs which can be implanted in a mother.

Krzysztof Lukaszuk, a professor who heads the Invicta IVF clinics in Gdansk and Warsaw, believes that regulation would lead to red tape and delays that could reduce the chances of pregnancy for many women. But as in Malta, the issue remains one of access to IVF for low-income families.

The cohabitation debate

Just as in Malta, cohabitation remains another item on the government's list of unfulfilled promises. The presence of Palikot's 47-seat group in parliament has also rocked the waters by pre-empting Tusk with their own liberal cohabitation law. 

The ruling Civic Platform party's leader, prime minister Donald Tusk during an election campaign last year pledged to allow a debate on same-sex civil unions as one of the first debates in the parliament's new term, which began in late 2011. The promise to regulate cohabitation in Malta dates back in 1998.

In January 2012, the social democrats and the Palitikot jointly presented two draft laws on civil partnerships. One of the draft law on civil partnerships gives specific recognition to gay partnerships and gives them the same rights as married couples.

On its part, Civic Platform intends to submit a third bill similar to the French PACS law, which makes a clear distinction between married and cohabiting couples.

On 24 July, the majority of members of the lower house of the parliament voted against the submission for first reading of two bills of civil partnerships proposed by the two left-wing parties. One day later, the Civic Platform has proposed its own bill on cohabitation, which is expected to be submitted to the parliament in September.  The bill is expected to give cohabiting couples - including same sex couples - some, but not all, the rights enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.

As in Malta, the ruling centre-right party faces less of a dilemma in recognising same-sex partnerships than in regulating IVF, mostly due to the tenuous link made by the powerful church between freezing embryos and abortion. 

What is at stake in Poland, as in Malta, is which rights the ruling party is willing to give to same sex partners.  The law presented by Chris Said on Tuesday recognises same sex partnerships through a registration system but falls short of granting gay couples the same rights as married couples.

This suggests a degree consensus between the major political parties, as the Labour Party also supports civil partnerships for gays but stops short of calling for full marriage equality.  But by advocating civil unions, Labour seems to be one step ahead even if it is yet not clear whether this will entail full equality between married and gay couples especially with regards to adoption and access to IVF.

Two weeks ago Alternattiva Demokratika became the first Maltese political party to support legislation through which same sex couples would be able to marry in the same way as heterosexual couples, thus raising the bar of the debate.  

The risk for the PN is that in its bid to accommodate the liberal vote, it will end up creating even more frustration among the gay community by creating an inferior regime for cohabiting gay couples.

MaltaToday surveys over the past years have shown a remarkable increase for marriage equality over the past five years, with the majority of under-35-year-olds now supporting gay marriage. Judging by polls, Poland seems to be even more conservative than Malta on this issue. A government poll released in June showed 65% of those polled were against giving same-sex couples the right to register their partnerships - a formality that would allow partners to gain access to medical information about each other, avoid inheritance taxes, and file income taxes together. But in a somewhat schizophrenic display, about a half out of the 1,700 Poles polled by the government supported each of the above rights for same-sex couples when asked individual questions.

At the end of the day, it may be possible that by the end of the year, Malta may well end up having two timid and watered down laws on both sensitive topics while Poland risks having none.

James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...
Christian Thorn
Id-Dilemma ta' Malta - il-partnership bejn Lawrence "DCG" Gonzi u l'Oligarkija tieghu!
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