All the President’s ‘moral dilemmas’

Something tells me that, the longer our President carries on playing these ‘Will he/Won’t he?’ games… the more people will finally start questioning what the role of Malta’s Presidency actually entails…

Look: I know they don’t call it the ‘silly season’ for nothing… but aren’t we taking things a little too far now?

I’m talking about the endless game of ‘Will he? Won’t he?’, currently being played between President George Vella and most of the Maltese media: “Oh! Will he, won’t he, will he, won’t he, sign the IVF bill into law?” (Repeat to fade).

Believe it or not, that question has been put to President Vella at least four times, in the last seven days… and an unquantifiable number of times, since Parliament first started debating amendments to the ‘Embryo Protection Act’ around four months ago.

But the game itself started a lot earlier than that: all the way back when Vella resigned from parliament in 2018, before taking up his new position as President of the Republic.

Back then, it was another IVF reform bill that had posed a moral dilemma to the former Health Minister: i.e., his own government’s introduction of embryo-freezing (which is not exactly ‘unrelated’ to his more recent concerns with Pre-implantation Genetic Testing, is it?)

On that occasion, the future President lambasted the bill as “a complete travesty of ethics, morality, and human dignity”: so predictably enough, the very first question he was asked, was…

… well, exactly the same as he’s being asked today (only in the future conditional tense, of course: ‘Would he?’ ‘Wouldn’t he?’, etc.)

At the time, however, the decision itself still fell to former President Marie-Louise Coleiro – who, by the way, faced exactly the same sort of moral dilemma (as did all Malta’s Presidents before her)… so in a sense, George Vella was spared having to actually reply, the first time round.

It was only when yet another IVF reform bill was proposed in 2021 – this time, to permit the ‘permanent freezing’ of embryos with certain genetic/hereditary conditions - that the question suddenly resurfaced with a vengeance: and by then, George Vella was indeed the President who would have to sign the resulting bill into law.

And how did he answer, in 2021? ‘“We will cross the bridges when we come to them…”

Erm… much as I hate to point out the obvious: haven’t we more or less ‘come to those bridges’ already?

Because last I looked, the IVF amendments (PGT and all) were duly approved by Parliament exactly a week ago, on Wednesday 6 July: by an extraordinary coincidence, the day before President George Vella got asked the same question… AGAIN!

Now: I am not familiar enough with Malta’s Parliamentary procedure, to accurately predict how long it would take for the bill itself to physically land on President George Vella’s desk, for approval. But if it hasn’t already happened: it must surely be well into the process of ‘happening’, by now.

Yet the President still flatly (and repeatedly) refuses to confirm whether he intends to sign the damn thing, or not – even now: when Parliament has already taken its first step in the act of ‘crossing that bridge’. This, for instance, is a verbatim transcript from a press conference last Thursday, July 7:

Journalist: ‘Will you be signing the law?’

President: ‘The law will be signed.’

Journalist: ‘By you?’

President: ‘The law will be signed.’

Another journalist, from a different newsroom: ‘[By] YOU?’

President: ‘The law will be signed. Now I’ve answered you three times…’

Except that… he didn’t really answer, did he? And it was a performance he would repeat two days later, when interviewed by Andrew Azzopardi on radio:

Azzopardi: ‘But this [Vella’s refusal to answer] shows me you still have a moral doubt about this law; because if you hadn’t, you would have no problem saying you’re going to sign it off. There are two options, really. Either you sign it or the acting president signs it…’

President: ‘Let’s not get into that argument…’

OK: at this point, you might well be asking yourselves the same question that seems to be puzzling George Vella himself, right now. Why, exactly, are those pesky journalists (and I include myself among their number) so insistent on eliciting a direct reply from the President of the Republic?

And what difference does it make, anyway, if he signs the bill into law himself…  or leaves it to his second-in-command instead? [Note: who is rumoured to have even been chosen, specifically to provide George Vella with this sort of ‘escape-route’?]

After all, Vella has already conceded that: “Any law that goes through Parliament with the correct democratic process has to be accepted. I can’t send back any bill for a second consideration and once it goes through, it has to be signed.”

In a nutshell, then, there is no realistic danger that the President might succeed – intentionally, or otherwise - in blocking this reform. As he himself said three times (before ‘the cock crew’, etc.): ‘The law will be signed.’

So ultimately, it’s just a question of whose signature will be on the dotted line, that’s all…

And you know what? I’d probably be arguing that way myself, too… if the only thing that hung in the balance, was the question of whether or not the IVF reform would eventually ‘go through’.

Unfortunately, however, there is a little more to it than that. If nothing else, the President’s refusal to commit himself, one way or the other, invariably raises other questions of its own. And not only do these questions go well beyond the immediate ‘concerns with IVF’… but they are not even limited to the person currently occupying the role of President, either.

No, indeed. They concern the role of the Presidency itself: what it is, what it isn’t; and how it’s expected to actually function, in a Constitutional set-up such as ours.

For let’s face it: George Vella is hardly the first President of the Republic to use his office to try and ‘influence’ governments, in the process of legislating. In fact: this isn’t even the first time he himself has done this, as President.

As I recall, George Vella had likewise expressed ‘moral dilemmas’ about the 2021 Cannabis Decriminalisation Act, too; and - then as now - he had even threatened to refuse to ratify it, at the time.

The same sort of threat was made earlier by President Eddie Fenech Adami: interestingly enough, also on the subject of IVF; and with the result that the country remained without any form of regulatory framework for years – even though the medical procedure itself was already being carried out (unregulated) in certain private hospitals anyway…

And all Maltese Presidents – including George Vella – have pre-emptively threatened to resign, sooner than sign off on anylaw introducing abortion, in any shape, manner or form…

Meanwhile, there seems to be no consensus on what the fall-out would actually be, should any of those threats ever be carried out. We are told, for instance, that “any act of parliament requires the President’s signature to become law, and refusal to do so – an improbable prospect in Maltese political history – could create a constitutional crisis…”

… and while past experience (including Vella’s own U-turn on cannabis) suggests that the prospect is indeed remote: it doesn’t really matter, because even just the threat of a ‘Constitutional crisis’ – caused by the Head of State, no less – would usually be enough to stop any government (in any country) directly in its tracks.

Now: President Vella has already made it clear that it is not his intention (or even within his power) to halt these latest IVF reforms… but he is still very much in time to ‘influence’ any other future legislation that the present government might happen to be contemplating, right now.

And in case there was any doubt which sort of ‘reform’ he may have in mind: “The President however said that the IVF bill did not pose the same morality issues as a potential abortion or euthanasia bill. ‘In that case there would be not argument - I would leave. We’re however not at that stage yet.’”

‘We’re not at that stage yet’; ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’… it’s all one and the same answer, isn’t it? (And just as flawed as the first one; for the same reason, too).

Sorry, but… we might not be at the precise stage, right now, when a law introducing abortion is ‘sitting on the President’s desk, awaiting his signature on the dotted line.’ But we’re not that far off either, are we?

It was only three weeks ago, in fact, that Health Minister Chris Fearne announced “a review of [abortion] legislation, to ensure medical professionals are not stopped from saving lives”, in the wake of the Andrea Prudente case.

Once again: I can’t predict how long that reform will take, to physically pass through all the legislative hurdles – from consultation, to Parliamentary readings, to a final vote – and eventually ‘land on the President’s desk’, for his signature.

What I can safely say, however, is that President George Vella’s antics, today, will no doubt affect the duration of that process – and that may, in itself, well be part of the entire motive behind his current, ‘obstructive’ approach to the IVF reform bill.

Yet all along, I am unaware that the Constitution actually envisages that sort of role for the Presidency. And something tells me that, the longer our President carries on playing these ‘Will he/Won’t he?’ games… the more people will finally start questioning what the role of Malta’s Presidency actually entails…

…and, much more pertinently: whether any of the more recent incumbents, really have been ‘up to the job’.