On IVF, the PN has painted itself into a corner

All the PN’s past positions on IVF were clearly aimed at appeasing only one segment of public opinion; and it seems to be a rather ‘extremist’, if not arguably ‘anti-science’, position for any 21st century European political party to realistically uphold

The ongoing Parliamentary debate about assisted fertility treatment – which aims to expand IVF legislation to permit genetic testing on embryos, for nine hereditary diseases – has brought with it a certain sense of deja-vu.

The bill was tabled by Prime Minister Robert Abela, who argued that his government had a mandate to “allow science to offer a solution to couples with serious hereditary diseases who do not wish to transmit them to their children.”

But while the Opposition supports most of the proposed amendments – such as, paradoxically, ‘allowing frozen embryos abroad to be brought over to Malta’ – it continues to oppose genetic screening for hereditary diseases, ‘because it goes against the embryo’s right to life’.

In the words of PN Health spokesperson Stephen Spiteri: “These selected embryos will remain frozen forever […] We cannot separate the embryo’s right to life from the wishes of the prospective parents to have a child because someone will hurt and suffer.”

To be fair, these concerns cannot be dismissed as frivolous, in themselves. There is certainly good reason to be wary of creating a stockpile of unwanted, or unviable, frozen embryos; and at a glance, the selectivity involved in the screening process may give rise to understandable (albeit exaggerated) concerns about ‘eugenics’.

Nonetheless, it is precisely because these concerns exist, that a more detailed regulatory framework is necessary in the first place. As things stand, the alternatives to undergoing genetic screening in Malta, are to either seek the same treatment abroad, at considerably higher cost; or (for the sufferers of hereditary diseases) not to have children at all.

From that perspective, the Nationalist Party’s current position against genetic testing, comes across as a stark reminder of its original objections to the entire technology of assisted fertility, in its totality.

When the issue was first raised in the early 2000s, Former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami had staunchly resisted any attempt to even discuss the issue at all – a position he retained even as President: with the result that the introduction of a regulatory framework, had to be postponed until as late as 2012.

Yet throughout that time, IVF was all along available – unregulated – in private hospitals. As such, the Nationalist government’s conscientious objections only served to perpetuate a situation of (real or potential) ‘lawlessness’, at the time.

It was, in fact, the very lack of a regulatory framework that eventually forced Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to kick-start this much-needed discussion: but both his attempts, and those of his successors, were clearly aimed at placating only the more ideologically-motivated (and, very often, extremist) opponents of IVF.

Unsurprisingly, the resulting legislation – namely, the 2012 Embryo Protection Act and its ban on embryo freezing – only led to a dramatic reduction in the local success rate of IVF: effectively pushing more prospective parents to seek the same treatment elsewhere.

Likewise, in 2018, the PN had first opposed a reform that would (inter alia) ‘permit embryo freezing’: only to later concede that those amendments were indeed necessary, and revise its position accordingly.

Hence the sensation of deja-vu. Having already been forced, by necessity, to soften its stance on IVF in general: the Nationalist Party now seems to be setting itself up for yet another U-turn in future. Or as health Minister Chris Fearne sardonically put it: “The Opposition has a history of agreeing with reforms after they happen”.

On the subject IVF, he certainly has a point: and the same argument could be extended to other issues as well. But this brings us to yet another reason why the Nationalist Party’s position on such issues is so problematic (primarily, for itself).

Just as the PN has a history of such U-turns: the Labour Party, too, has a history of utilising such issues to paint the PN into an uncomfortable corner.  And it must be said that the Nationalist Party has made it altogether too easy for Labour to continually succeed in doing so.

Boiled down to their bare essentials, all the PN’s past positions on IVF were clearly aimed at appeasing only one segment of public opinion; and it seems to be a rather ‘extremist’, if not arguably ‘anti-science’, position for any 21st century European political party to realistically uphold.

And yet, there are ways in which modern Christian Democrat parties can update their policies on such sensitive issues, without pandering to such extremist elements: as so memorably exemplified by the late Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, an eminent ideologue for the party under Eddie Fenech Adami.

When testifying before parliament’s Social Affairs Committee in 2005, Fr Peter had argued against a ban on embryo freezing, insisting this was not equivalent to ‘killing’. He also drew an important distinction between the obligation not to destroy human life and the less onerous obligation to ensure its continued survival.

Without delving too deeply into the arguments themselves, it can already be seen that there are other, more credible ways to represent legitimate moral concerns, than the ones the Nationalist Party consistently seems to be taking (invariably, at its own cost).

The PN would therefore be wise to heed the words of its own former ideological mentor, all these years later.