On IVF, when people live in a bubble long enough, even truth sounds like a lie: Fr Colin Apap

Fr Colin Apap proposes some provocative reflections on the current debate in Parliament on IVF amendments, analysing the different positions being debated and delving into Fr Peter Seracino Inglott’s stand, and the Maltese constitutional implications on freedom of religion

“I cannot expect that the Government would propose a different law. It is up to Government how it legislates – since Government has to take into consideration the good of every citizen. However, I do have the obligation to indicate to those who choose to live as Christians that the disciple of Jesus has to live the Gospel and commit himself to live a truly authentic life. Otherwise we end up a religion of pick and choose.” – Anton Teuma, Bishop of Gozo

I agree 100% with the public stand the Bishop of Gozo is taking on the government’s proposed legislation on IVF amendments being discussed in parliament. My agreement with him is because I trust him; he is transparent and his lifestyle transpires pure good news. He has no hidden agenda and he carries the smell of his sheep just as Pope Francis portrays the true shepherd finding his way forward in a church that is a field hospital. Even our Constitution guarantees freedom of teaching by our bishops.

I am prompted to write this article after a Xejk TV programme, where participants commented that couples who seek IVF would be seeking “the easiest way out”. The same insensitive attitude of people who have never found themselves in such situations. People who have not accompanied couples who long to have a healthy child during their tortuous journey can never show genuine empathy.

When accompanying such couples, I lived with them the tensions, the despair, the fear, the helplessness and hopelessness when they had to face one IVF after another, without ever having the chance to embrace their own baby. Yet I have met ‘Catholic’ voices who play lip service in words of solidarity and compassion but deep down they never cared about the suffering such couples have to pass through.

One day I was visiting a home who had just had the first baby. Proud of her first-born the mother came to present me her beautiful healthy baby. All of a sudden, she began to cry. I could not understand. She told me that she went to church and was told, “this is the son of sin!” – because he was born by IVF! I hugged and danced with the innocent baby!

READ ALSO: Priest provokes Catholics in ‘the bubble’ on embryo genetic testing

It is this bigotry, insensitivity, often in the name of God or the Church that makes me feel bad to form part of such religious cliques. They live in a religious bubble echoing their own vision of life – and death.

It is this clericalism that a growing number of people don’t feel at home with.

It is the same bubble that produced the known reaction when they proposed, in the name of the local church, their learned position papers on divorce, same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex couples, IVF, homosexuality etc. People who are suffering in such a situation are never, if ever, appointed to such learned elite committees. When official papers promoted by the RTK ‘bubble mentality’ are published, one notices that there is no place in such elite committees, for homosexuals and LGBTIQ+ people who live their own reality and feel excluded.

When I ask who the members are and who chose them I realize that they are the same people who carry different caps. The people, the hoi polloi, generally, use their own intelligence and act according to their inner voice, formed and informed. The sensus fidelium is stronger than the books of the elite.

People in the bubble normally are against any change – until themselves or someone in their own clan would need that change. Usually they tend to belong to the right of the political spectrum.

Trump, Salvini and Putin are examples of those who live in the ‘bubble’.

The scene of Donald Trump brandishing the Bible in front of a church in Washington, DC, following the assassination of George Floyd, remains imprinted in our memory.

A year earlier, there had been another distasteful event: Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega Nord party in Italy, entrusting Italy to the Virgin Mary and kissing a rosary at a political rally while creating a climate of hate against immigration. In addition, only recently, we saw Russian President Vladimir Putin refer to Bible verses to justify his decision to invade Ukraine.

When pastors become politicians, they lose their role. Hegemony of Church-political parties in Malta, throughout decades, has alienated many people from the Church. We are still weeding Maltese history to realize that church subservience to partisan politics has only one loser – the church itself. These politicians use religion for the advancement of their ideology. They feel they have the whole truth – because those in the same ‘bubble’ reinforce their self-righteousness.

Scientific facts determine the outcome of the IVF amendments. If, as I believe it would, the voting of MPs follows the Whip’s decisions, then the law will be reformed according to the government’s majority. Unfortunately, ideology, not reason, takes over – and by summer all laws will be implemented and forgotten.

The questions and asnwers

What can a couple do to ensure a healthy baby when science shows the presence of defective genes that render the quality of life impossible?

Prayers and belief can help. However, God gave us an intelligent mind to use it. Two alternatives are proposed.

The government’s: prenatal genetic testing involves screening embryos for certain genetic diseases. Embryos found to carry such conditions are in most countries discarded and thrown away, however, Health Minister Chris Fearne has said in Malta they would be kept frozen and offered for adoption. The Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) agreed with PGT.

Doctors for Life: That at the point of fertilisation, a new human life has begun, whether this happens naturally or in IVF. A human embryo is a human being at an early stage of its development and as such needs to be treated with due respect and dignity.

I find it hard to believe that anyone would be tempted to adopt a “genetically abnormal embryo” unless s/he claims sainthood now. The fact is, not a single one of the 388 frozen “normal” embryos had been adopted.

Prenatal Genetic Testing (PGT-M) does raise ethical dilemmas that cannot be brushed aside with nonchalance. However, one would expect arguments to have a moral grounding of sorts, irrespective of what stand each of our MPs will take.

Government is trying to give an answer for at least nine conditions, which are listed as severe, acute genetic diseases and in many cases lead to death. The Embryo Protection Authority has the right to increase this list. All of them except for Huntington’s Disease tend to appear shortly after birth. In the most severe cases, the baby lives for a few weeks or months under heavy medical treatment before it dies.

Polar Body Testing (PBT), proposed as an alternative to PGT-M, offers the possibility of detecting an abnormal number of chromosomes as well as maternal single gene diseases.

I do believe that the status quo is discriminatory against parents who happen to have a family history of genetic disorders and government must act now.

Neither Polar Body Testing (PBT) nor Pre-implantation Genetic Testing (PGT-M) can offer comprehensive answers - at least partial answers.

The government, following the strong mandate for its electoral programme, is proving that it is serious. Instead of the usual words and studies, this week it moved to legislate and amend the IVF laws to increase the birth of new healthy babies. In fact, over 419 “miracle babies” were born between 2013 and 2021. That means more than 400 new lives, which brought so much joy to their parents and grandparents. A key development will allow pre-implantation genetic testing for monogenic disorders (PGT-M) in cases that have a family history of serious genetic disorders.

Fr Peter’s position

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was an excellent professor of philosophy, taught generations of priests, religious and students how to think and reflect. I consider him one of the brightest minds in the local church. As Rector of the University, he was a visionary of international repute. His vision of life stimulated the Nationalist Party to reinvent itself to conform to its calling – to serve all, not to stagnate in an evolving world of bioethics.

For those who know him, he still is able to make us reflect on what he says. He had a Beautiful Mind. Moreover, he was humble. Approachable. Helpful.

His contribution when testifying in front of the Parliament’s Social Affairs Committee on 7th February 2005, (17 years ago), highlighted that embryo freezing was not equivalent to killing. Those in ‘the bubble’ tend to ignore Fr Peter’s elaborate explanation. Fr Peter provides an enlightened position for lay politicians who have qualms about IVF, embryo freezing, genetic testing and embryo research.

Lawmakers must strike a balance between the rights of parents and the rights of the embryo. A glance at the implications of our Constitution and freedom of religion opens a dialogue that we do not often enter into.

The Maltese Constitution and freedom of religion

Article 2 of the Constitution of Malta stipulates that: “(1) The religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion. (2) The authorities of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong”.

The freedom of the Maltese ecclesiastical authorities is constitutionally guaranteed to teach all that appertains to the Catholic religion. The Constitution makes a sociological point: the religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic religion. If the sociological religious reality of the Maltese changes so, does the new Constitution change? This does not imply that Malta is a confessional state, like Iran.

The number of Maltese citizens who belong to different religions increase exponentially, especially Muslims. Respect for their beliefs, even if against the position of the Catholic Church, has to be fomented. Faith supports the right to choose.

Religious liberty for people of all faiths is protected under the Maltese Constitution.

I found the article ‘Abortion Bans Violate Religious Liberty’ (The Guardian, June 2022) challenging. The article not only had implications for n the US and abortion debates currently going on there, but also challenges the principles involved in constitutional rights, freedom of religion and the rights of individuals to follow their own conscience and religious milieu.

The reality involved goes beyond abortion.

In Judaism, abortion is usually seen as permissible and even required in cases where the patient’s life is at risk. In Islam, scholars contend that abortion is allowed for the first 120 days, after which it’s seen as a civil – not a criminal – issue, and it’s permitted at any time when the health of the mother is in danger.

As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, put it:

“There are very serious religious liberty questions here… If you ban abortion, when my religious tradition tells me that I am a) permitted and b) possibly required to access abortion care, you are limiting my free exercise of religion.”

I do understand that the IVF amendments are not intended to open the door for abortion. However, the challenge remains. Moreover, this article opens the door to seek a balance.

When people live in a bubble long enough, even the truth sounds like a lie.