On IVF, leave ‘gods and nature’ out of the discussion

Remember, we are legislators. We are not gods. We cannot do things that are bigger than us, like grant the right to have a child when neither nature nor God gives it to you

Simon Busuttil
Simon Busuttil

“Remember, we are legislators. We are not gods. We cannot do things that are bigger than us, like grant the right to have a child when neither nature nor God gives it to you. If we do this, we would be turning ourselves from legislators, into gods. And if we do that, we would be false gods.”

There: I thought I’d start by quoting those words in full, because there seems to be some confusion regarding what Simon Busuttil actually said in Parliament this week. And among the most confused seems to be Busuttil himself: who first accused the Labour media of ‘distorting his words beyond recognition’; then issued a ‘clarification’ that actually confirmed the general gist of the original report.

According to his own clarification, the only detail omitted by One News was that Busuttil said those words ‘in the context of LGBT couples’, with specific reference to surrogacy.

Exactly how that is supposed to alter the implications, however, remains unclear to me. Does it matter that he was referring only to same-sex couples, and not infertile women of any sexual orientation? Does it even matter that he was speaking in a debate about assisted fertility... and not any other health issue, such as cancer or meningitis?

Not that I can see myself. But then again, I may be looking at things from a slightly different perspective. For yes, that One News feature did distort Busuttil’s words up to a point.

As usual, they were too concerned with how they could be politically exploited, and too little with what they actually meant. To me, the emphasis should not have been on the ‘god and nature’ part; nor even on the part about having (or failing to have) children. To me, it should really be on the part about ‘legislators’.

From that angle, Simon Busuttil is perfectly right. Our legislators are not ‘gods’: far from it. ‘Gods’ are metaphysical entities wielding great supernatural powers of creation and destruction, among other attributes. Legislators, on the other hand, are the people we rely on to create the legal framework in which we conduct our daily lives. Quite a big difference, I would say. We can all easily do without the former – indeed, for several centuries (if not millennia) we have survived quite comfortably without the agency of any ‘god’ that was once widely believed in, worshipped and appeased.

Where are Thor and Odin now, eh? They’re characters out of Marvel Comics. Where is Astarte? Baal? Zeus? Ra? Where is Poseidon, Ninhursag, Huitzilopochtli, Albiorix...?

Ah, but where are our parliamentarians? THAT is a question we can all answer. They’re in Parliament, of course: hard at work to make this country a better place for future generations, etc. (Just kidding: they’re mostly stamping their feet and insulting each other like little children on a playground....  but hey, at least we know where they are. And that’s important, because – unlike ‘gods and nature’ – we really do need them to legislate on all the stuff that matters).

So let’s take a step back and look at Busuttil’s contribution to the IVF debate in its wider context... but not before I take this opportunity to express genuine surprise that it actually came from Simon Busuttil, and not any of his Opposition colleagues. Believe it or not, I tend to agree with him when he says: “As a politician I am one of the most liberal MPs in the PN, and proud to have allowed the party to vote for gay marriage.”

So on the whole, I’m quite happy to put this seemingly discordant note down to a single, incomprehensible little blip...

But in any case: IVF (huge simplification coming up, folks) is a medical technology which aims to enable couples to have children, in cases where neither God nor nature can avail. Like all other medical technologies, its entire purpose was from the very outset to step in and ‘correct’ little failings within God’s creation, or nature’s weal (depending on your point of view). Take any disease you care to name. Rabies? It’s caused by an entirely natural RNA virus (also part of God’s creation, if you subscribe to that view), transmitted through the bite of an equally natural infected animal such as a fox, dog or bat. And unless you take the first of a series of immunoglobulin shots within 10 days of infection... it will very naturally kill you dead (and not a pretty way to go, either).

I need hardly add that immunoglobulin – though ‘natural’, in itself – is not something that either God or nature will provide to you directly, in usable form. For that, you have to go to hospital. (Oops, sorry... no such thing as a ‘hospital’ in nature...)

Naturally, we can extend that analogy to any form of disease whatsoever... even to injuries and accidents. Were it not for medicine coming up with (often highly unnatural) methods to counter such mishaps... very few of us would survive our 40th birthday.

In fact, very few of us ever did, back in the days when ‘gods and nature’ really were the only arbiters in human mortality.

A simple toothache would be enough to dispatch you, without a course of antibiotics to treat the ensuing septicaemia. And very soon, we may have to rely on medicine once more – not on nature, and certainly not on any ‘gods’ – to come up with another cure for emergent strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

But that’s medicine for you: steadfastly refusing to be ruled by the capricious whims of ‘gods and nature’ for centuries. I shudder to think what human life would even be like – though I imagine it would be very short – if medical science simply bowed its head in obedience every time Death came along to take a few swings with its scythe...

Does it matter that he was referring only to same-sex couples, and not infertile women of any sexual orientation?

What intrigues me, however, is that we can all immediately see the absurdity when applied to life-threatening diseases and other health conditions.

If we get cancer, or measles, or polio, or chicken-pox... none of us considers it ‘blasphemous’ to defy God’s will by going to a doctor for treatment.

Why, then, do so few of us see the same absurdity in applying that argument to infertility?

But that’s just looking at it from a medical perspective. From the perspective of legislation itself – i.e., what is actually involved in drawing up national laws which apply to everyone, equally – a whole new dimension of absurdity creeps into view. ‘We are legislators, not gods’... remember? Then why, oh why, are you all acting like gods, and not like legislators at all?

It is not just medicine that transcends the barriers set up by gods and nature, you know. ‘The Law’ does it all the time, too. Laws to protect property rights, for instance. Oh sure, something similar exists in nature... it’s called ‘territoriality’, and usually involves one creature savagely fighting off rival competitors tooth and claw: sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The price to pay for failure will naturally vary from species to species... but one thing’s for sure. It won’t look anything like anything you or I would describe as ‘justice’ today.

Luckily for us, however, the law doesn’t always consider itself bound by the same confines set by ‘gods or nature’. As with medicine, there would be precious little point in it if it did. We don’t need ‘legislators’ to enforce ’natural laws’ that are there anyway, and in any case impossible to break. We need legislators to do the very opposite, in fact: to provide specific parameters for human behaviour, where nature does not.

So, coming back to the issue at hand... what’s the point in debating IVF legislation at all, if our MPs simply refuse to ever go beyond the physical boundaries of the natural world?

And that, by the way, is why I still can’t see any difference between IVF for same-sex couples, and IVF for infertile women in heterosexual relationships. The reasons for their inability to have children may be different, but the same technology can still be used to overcome the hurdle in both cases. Why bow to the whims of ‘God and nature’ in one case, but not the other?

There is (or could be) an answer to that question, and part of it comes out of Simon Busuttil’s subsequent clarification.

Regulating the use of IVF by same-sex couples would, de facto, force our legislators to regulate other aspects of the technology: surrogacy, gamete-donation, etc... and also, by extension, to re-draft national legislation across the board, to take into account all the new social realities.

But again: that’s why we need such matters to be regulated by legislators, not gods or nature.

And there are plenty of good reasons to want to establish clear legal parameters for IVF, or any similar medical technology.

We tend to forget sometimes that the opposite of ‘legislation’ is actually just ‘lawlessness’; so when technologies are not legislated upon, they don’t become ‘illegal’... they simply remain ‘available in unregulated form’, with all the added danger that implies.

So, if the intention is to simply leave IVF – all, or in part – ‘available in unregulated form’... then quite frankly, we may as well just roll back the clock to before the technology was even invented. If, on the other hand, the ultimate objective is to have a functional piece of legislation that addresses a very real health condition affecting thousands of people... then perhaps it would be wiser to leave ‘gods and nature’ out of the discussion altogether.

No offence, but neither has a particularly impressive track record when it comes to improving the standards of a country’s medical health services.

For that, we need legislators...

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