PN MPs must reflect on Fr Peter’s words before rushing to denounce PGT

Caught between a hard-line statute and embryo genetic testing, Nationalist Party MPs would do well to read Fr Peter’s testimony 17 years ago

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott told MPs in 2005 that embryo freezing was not equivalent to killing
Fr Peter Serracino Inglott told MPs in 2005 that embryo freezing was not equivalent to killing

At the time of writing this piece, it remains unclear what position the Nationalist Party will adopt in parliament when embryo genetic testing is discussed. 

Bernard Grech on Xtra last Monday hinted that the PN will not support the legal amendments to introduce preimplantation genetic testing as part of the IVF process.

He said that PGT was not a question of helping infertile couples conceive but selecting which embryos are implanted and which are not.

He suggested in a cautionary tone that choosing healthy embryos would be an affront to parents of children who suffer from genetic diseases but stopped short of a more detailed explanation.

Now, PGT does raise ethical dilemmas that cannot be brushed aside with nonchalance. But one would expect arguments to have a moral grounding of sorts, irrespective of what stand each of our MPs will take.

To be clear, I am in favour of PGT as a tool that should be available to all couples who undergo IVF and who have a family history of hereditary genetic diseases or conditions.

Every prospective parent hopes their child is born healthy. This does not mean that children born with a condition or disease are not loved and cared for. But the reality is that their quality of life may not be at its best unless the family they are born into is mentally, educationally, physically and financially prepared for the difficulties that will arise over time.

PGT offers prospective parents who live in the constant fear of passing on a debilitating condition to their offspring, a choice to do things differently. It offers them the choice to have children that can lead relatively normal lives and that is something I agree with.

It remains to be seen how limiting government’s proposal is because the details as to who will be eligible for PGT and which diseases will be tested for are not found in the law proper but in a protocol that parliament will also get to discuss.

However, the law does say that any embryo which is found to carry the defective genes cannot be discarded or used for scientific research but has to be frozen.

The emphasis on freezing these defective embryos is not casual. Malta has no abortion law, so discarding defective embryos would have run counter to the draconian law, even if Chris Fearne has steadfastly avoided comparing the two.

Government has opted for the preservation of life by proposing freezing these embryos for perpetuity or until someone decides to adopt them.

READ ALSO: How the law will change - Embryo genetic testing and the protocol

The PN statute

But back to the PN and its pro-life fixation that consistently hampers its choices, even if a more studied approach shows that what is being proposed does not go counter to its statute.

What does the PN statute say?

There are two key aspects from the statute, which could possibly be used to argue against PGT and the freezing of embryos.

Under the heading of Vision and Mission, the PN statute says that the central mission of the party is everyone’s wellbeing “with respect to the value of human life” and later on emphasises that the party is obliged to ensure “everyone develops and takes care of their health, from conception to death, with emphasis on the quality of life”.

But the PN statute also says that the party considers politics as “a good and lay tool” to be of service to the people.

Does PGT and its outcome contradict the PN statute? A simple answer would be no.

The proposal to test embryos in those cases where there is a risk of passing on a serious hereditary disease enables parents to bring to life children that can have a decent quality of life. This choice, which tries to avoid known hardship and pain, is a choice every average human being would make.

The proposal to freeze defective embryos, effectively means that the life of those few cells will be preserved and not destroyed. The life created at conception through IVF will not be terminated but frozen.

Fr Peter’s words

Who are you to preach to the PN, I can hear you say. I am a nobody but it would help PN MPs to take a look at what Fr Peter Serracino Inglott had to say about IVF, embryo freezing and the use of unclaimed embryos for therapeutic research.

The priest, an eminent ideologue for the party under Eddie Fenech Adami, made some important statements when testifying in front of parliament’s Social Affairs Committee on 7 February 2005.

The committee chaired by former MP Clyde Puli was then discussing how to regulate IVF and was listening to various experts and lay people. At the time, IVF was only done in one private clinic and the sector was unregulated.

Embryo freezing not equivalent to killing

Serracino Inglott had argued against a ban on embryo freezing, insisting this was not equivalent to killing.

“When you freeze an embryo, you are not killing it, but putting it in a state where over a length of time it can degenerate. This means that life is being put at risk, but there is no absolute obligation to preserve life,” Fr Peter had told MPs.

He also drew an important distinction between the obligation not to destroy human life and the less onerous obligation to ensure its continued survival.

There was an absolute moral obligation not to kill innocent people and this, he argued, should be prohibited by the law because the action violates the individual’s fundamental human rights.

But preserving life and ensuring its continual survival, was another matter altogether, he noted.

Fr Peter cited as an example the situation of a patient who required extraordinary medical treatment to survive.

“You are never obliged to utilise those extraordinary means… you can also take decisions that reduce the chances for life to be preserved by refusing to accept the treatment. Although the preservation of life is a serious obligation, it is not an absolute principle,” Fr Peter had said.

The priest had also made an argument in favour of using frozen embryos for therapeutic research. While advocating against the creation of unnecessary embryos, Fr Peter had said he saw no moral objection to the use of unclaimed embryos in stem cell research for therapeutic purposes.

“I can imagine a situation whereby some of the unnecessary embryos being produced abroad… be brought to Malta and used for experiments to determine whether stem cells can be used for therapeutic treatments. I find no moral objection to this and see no reason why it should be prohibited,” he said.

I quote Fr Peter, 17 years after he professed those words, to show that even a Christian-democratic party like the PN can still adopt a position in favour of PGT and justify it by adopting a moral argument that does not contradict its own statute.

Meditate gente, meditate

Before rushing to denounce PGT, PN MPs must reflect on Fr Peter’s words. They can read the full transcript of the exchange Fr Peter had with MPs in 2005 because it provides an enlightened position for lay politicians who have qualms about IVF, embryo freezing, genetic testing and embryo research.

In 2018, the PN parliamentary group had voted against the IVF amendments that removed many of the restrictions introduced by the previous PN government in 2012. Bernard Grech got this wrong on Xtra when he said the PN supported those amendments.

I hope, the PN parliamentary group does not do the same mistake again. The Opposition has to show it can respond to the needs of a changing society.

PGT may not be a vote winner or of relevance to many people but the PN cannot afford to get this wrong if it is to present itself as a plausible, modern, European alternative for liberal-minded voters.