Let’s not make IVF a political football

we have one party’s women’s section accusing the other of being ‘non-functional’… when it is actually the ‘function’ of a women’s section of any political party to speak out on issues which are of direct concern to women.

Traditionally, Malta takes a break from politics around mid-August. This year, however, has been an exception: mid-August has come and gone, and there has been no let-up at all in the increasingly frenetic pace of local politics.

The latest example concerns a remarkably vitriolic exchange between the respective women’s sections of the Nationalist and Labour parties, over the latter’s proposals for a reform in Malta’s IVF legislation. Earlier this week the PL’s ‘Nisa Laburisti’ came out with a list of 10 recommendations to improve the viability of Malta’s assisted fertility programme: only to be lambasted by the ‘Moviment Nisa PN’ as a ‘non-functional’ entity that served as a smokescreen for the Prime Minister to surreptitiously introduce embryo freezing and surrogacy. 

Even the tone of the MNPN’s statement was provocative and insulting: “The amateurish way in which Joseph Muscat wants to introduce something as sensitive as embryo fertilisation and surrogacy beggars belief,” the MNPN said. “The out-of-the-blue statement by the Labour Women in the thick of summer shows Muscat’s way of doing politics. He prefers to hide behind the non-functioning Labour Women’s outfit to fly a kite and manipulate public opinion instead of coming clean and telling the people what he thinks.”

If the implications were not so serious, the situation would almost be comical. Here we have one party’s women’s section accusing the other of being ‘non-functional’… when it is actually the ‘function’ of a women’s section of any political party to speak out on issues which are of direct concern to women.

IVF certainly fits the description of an issue that women’s organisations are expected to debate in any country. Yet the Moviment Nisa PN seems more intent on ridiculing their Labour counterparts for engaging in a discussion about an important women’s health issue… while not actually putting forward any proposals of its own.

This raises the question of which of these two organisations is the more ‘non-functional’ and ‘amateurish’. But that is merely an aside. The real issue underscoring this exchange is that, for the umpteenth time, an important national debate has been hijacked by schoolyard party politics of the most childish variety, to the detriment of the people who will be most affected by the outcome, i.e., the thousands of would-be parents who cannot have children by natural means.

For this reason it is important to place the NPL’s proposals within their relevant context. This statement did not, as the MNPN suggested, come ‘out of the blue’. Last June, health parliamentary secretary Chris Fearne launched an inter-ministerial working committee to re-evaluate Malta’s assisted fertility legislation, in the light of worrying statistics regarding the success rate under the present set-up. The committee asked the public for submissions, and the Labour Party’s women’s section – as one would expect – complied. 

One might reasonably ask, therefore, why the Nationalist Party’s equivalent did not do the same, but instead chose to ridicule the NL for doing its job. 

As for the NL’s proposals, these may admittedly prove contentious, in a country where moral scruples concerning female reproductive health have up to a point dominated all such discussions.  The Gonzi administration had introduced IVF in 2013 under a number of restrictions. Embryo freezing was outlawed altogether, with government pinning all its hopes on an alternative method – oocyte cryopreservation – which (to simplify matters) freezes unfertilised eggs instead of embryos. 

This was clearly a compromise by an administration that was technically opposed to IVF for religious/moral reasons (it is a practice frowned upon by the Catholic Church) but which recognised that its own moral principles could not be imposed on the rest of the country. There was a history behind this decision, too: though technically unrelated to IVF, the recent divorce referendum had illustrated the political dangers of mixing private ethical concerns with matters of public policy.

Significantly, the Labour Opposition at the time chose not to politicise the issue by objecting to the restrictions imposed by the government. Instead it supported the 2013 legislation in its totality, even though it expressed reservations about the chosen technology. 

Then as now, the IVF compromise had its non-political critics, too. Leading practitioners had warned that the success rate of oocyte cryopreservation was too low for Malta’s service to be considered viable. Early indications seem to bear these warnings out: in the last 30 months, 116 viable pregnancies have resulted from 411 attempts. This fixes the success rate at 28% – high for the technology in question, but far lower than the results known to be achieved through embryo freezing.

The Nisa Laburisti’s proposals therefore include embryo freezing, and also that the possibility of surrogate motherhood (excluding commercial surrogacy) be explored. Naturally, one can agree or disagree with these suggestions; but it would be absurd to argue that a political women’s organisation should have no business making them in the first place.

At this stage, it would perhaps be more helpful if the Opposition informed the public of its own recommendations to improve the success rate of IVF. This will surely be of more relevance to the thousands of would-be parents who might avail themselves of this technology, than an endless, childish game of political mudslinging. 

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