Bernard Grech must show leadership on ethical issues

Adrian Delia’s call for a free vote is bound to resonate with the party’s conservative grass roots, even at the cost of turning the party toxic to a growing number of other voters

Adrian Delia’s request for a free vote, in today’s Parliamentary debate on IVF reform – backed by a number of Nationalist MPs, opposed to amendments to permit PGT screening - can be seen on two levels.  

On one level, it exposes PN leader Bernard Grech’s weakened authority within the party: having first reluctantly overturned his own earlier opposition to PGT screening; only to face a last-minute ‘rebellion’, ahead of the vote.

On another, it also illustrates his slow and painful realization that the PN can’t afford to dig any further, into the trenches of its ultra-conservative faction.  

But by finally endorsing these amendments, after sending a number of mixed messages, Grech has at least avoided driving his party into a brick wall.   For had he insisted on opposing this legislation, he would have set the party on a collision course with a large segment of the public: including mothers who - in the absence of PGT- face the risk of giving birth to severely disabled babies; in some cases, only to watch them die, minutes later.  

In this sense, despite flip-flopping on the issue, Grech has to be commended for doing the right thing. He has avoided a situation where the party is once again perceived as an ultra-conservative outfit: a veritable throwback to its stance against divorce before 2011; its abstention on civil unions in 2014; its inexplicable opposition to the Istanbul convention, and to embryo freezing in 2018; and its opposition to cannabis decriminalisation, which Grech had initially supported.     

By putting the presumed rights of cellular life before the quality of life of parents and their off-spring, the PN risked alienating not only liberals, but also ‘middle-of-the-road’ voters who are increasingly uncomfortable with what they view as the pro-life movement’s extreme, fundamentalist agenda.  

Indeed, the kind of conservatism now taking root in the PN, is not even anchored in the European Christian Democratic tradition: which, in Malta, was represented by the nuanced stance on ethical issues adopted by Fr Peter Serracino Inglott.  Rather, it is more akin to that prevalent in the US Republican Party.     

And while there are valid concerns about the risk of a slippery slope leading to eugenics, these were extinguished by the law itself: which limits PGT only to very serious, extreme conditions. Hence, the accusation of ‘extremism’: for who on earth can find a rational justification for birthing a foetus destined to die, or a severely disabled child destined to live a short and painful life?    

The problem, however, is that Grech’s decision can hardly be seen as a sign of decisive leadership. Initially, he had hinted that he would not support PGT, when interviewed on Xtra in June: a stance reiterated by his spokesperson on health Stephen Spiteri.  

It was only following a backlash in the media that Grech surprised everyone by announcing a U-turn. Now, he argues that the opposition only changed tack after government had accepted amendments which give parents a choice between PGT testing on the fertilized egg; and the less reliable pre-genetic testing on unfertilized ova (PBT). But Health Minister Chris Fearne disputes this claim, insisting that this was already foreseen in the original draft.  

Still, no amendment has changed the substance of the law itself: which permits parents to ‘freeze’ defective embryos which carry genes of severe diseases.  So Grech should not be too surprised that some of his MPs are confused by his own position, which has so far lacked both conviction and depth.  

Moreover, Grech’s problem is compounded by the party’s own statute which binds the party to an extreme stance; that of protecting life from the moment of conception (in defiance of scientific understanding that, at that stage, we are clearly not dealing with a human person.) This not only commits the party to oppose abortion, even in cases where the health of the mother is at risk - isolating the PN from the European mainstream - but binds the party to even more irrational positions.  

Yet Delia and his allies can always legitimize their stance by reference to the PN statute; even if his shenanigans suggest that he is also bent on humiliating the party leader, on an issue where he can tap into the sensitivities of traditional Nationalists.   

In fact, Delia’s call for a free vote is bound to resonate with the party’s conservative grass roots, even at the cost of turning the party toxic to a growing number of other voters.  In this sense, the party cannot even find a way out of its dilemmas by opting for a free vote on all contentious ethical issues.  

It is highly doubtful whether the conservative wing would even accept a free vote on issues like abortion: judging by the intolerance shown to its own pro-choice party candidates and officials.  Moreover, granting a free vote now would further weaken Grech’s stature within the party: leaving him with no other option but to stand his ground and present a convincing case for supporting the IVF law, before the vote is taken today.  

But first, Bernard Grech has to show conviction and depth: two qualities which have so far eluded him.