A manifestation of prejudice

That such a motion could even be considered a politically sagacious move, in the climate of Malta today – after the recent battles won by the Gay Rights Movement, but also by other groups representing parents who need overseas IVF services – is beyond belief

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The motion tabled by the Opposition this week, regarding medical leave for IVF services abroad, must be one of the most heinous political acts (and legalistic twaddle) the Maltese parliament has seen in decades.

In an alleged bid to redress a contradiction between new rules for work leave, and the definitions contained in the Embryo Protection Act – the 2012 law the PN had used to outlaw embryo freezing and gamete donation – the PN now wants to prevent gay couples, or indeed anyone who requires embryo freezing or gamete donation abroad, from claiming leave from work for such a service.

That such a motion could even be considered a politically sagacious move, in the climate of Malta today – after the recent battles won by the Gay Rights Movement, but also by other groups representing parents who need overseas IVF services – is beyond belief.

The legalistic argumentation alone is deeply flawed. The PN claims it wants the legal notice, enacted this year for medical leave, to reflect the language of the Embryo Protection Act, which bans embryo freezing and sperm donation as well as IVF services to gay couples and single mothers.

A question therefore arises: would the PN agree to an update of the Embryo Protection Act to reflect the wording of the new legal notice, that is, to include other beneficiaries beyond heterosexuals? Would that parity be acceptable to the Opposition, given that it cites a lack of conformity as its main bone of contention?

Asked whether the PN would accept a change to the definition of “prospective parents” in the Embryo Protection Act, in order to make it identical to that in the legal notice, party whip and spokesman David Agius was non-committal. “We will discuss that position in the parliamentary group, if the government were to take this way forward,” he said.  This is however unhelpful: if the government were to take the Opposition’s motion on board, any new amendment of the Embryo Protection Act would still contradict the new legal notice.

Clearly, the cause of this discrepancy is the archaic wording of the old law, which has in any case since been superseded by new legislation to recognise same-sex unions and marriages. Agius is right when he argues that “you can’t have a legal notice saying one thing, and the law saying something different.” But legal procedure itself dictates that old laws should be updated to reflect new legal directions... not vice-versa. The correct way to address this anomaly is therefore to remove discrimination from existing laws... not to add discriminatory clauses to new legislation.

However, one must also question the implicit political direction of the PN under the new stewardship of Adrian Delia. It is clear that the new leader’s first policy move indicates an intention to rekindle the PN’s traditional suspicion towards the triumphs that have emancipated various groups of Maltese during the last five years. The declared aim – i.e., preventing such a basic worker’s right to a select group of people who require medical services abroad – represents only the tip of a general presumption of prejudice towards gay families’ rights, and people requiring IVF services in general.

On a separate note, it is also clearly aimed at appealing to the employers’ lobby, which has made its own (unrelated) demands concerning sick leave recently. This places the initiative in the context of an ongoing drive to dilute or tone down existing labour rights...  ironically, at a time when the PN promises to champion the rights of those downtrodden under Labour.

What is beyond doubt is that the ideological battle lines drawn up by Adrian Delia’s ‘Catholic and Latin’ leitmotif mark a new chapter in Maltese politics. Ironically, this may well serve to create the fertile ground necessary for a much-needed update of the Embryo Protection Act, which in 2012 closed the doors to successful IVF treatment for many families.

Under that law, embryo freezing was banned in Malta after the health authorities had neglected to regulate it successfully when it was practised in private hospitals. The result was that couples not content with the procedure of egg freezing – which is limited to the implantation of two fertilised eggs at a time – had to revert to the costly process of travelling abroad for IVF treatment.

Getting IVF treatment abroad is an arduous and time-consuming process: travelling to countries like the UK requires weeks of sojourn, and costs that can total €10,000 for treatment and accommodation. To tell Maltese citizens they should not be allowed to claim leave from work for this kind of treatment is tantamount to a slap in the face – not to mention a manifestation of prejudice that is practically unheard of in this day and age.

It is now high time that deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne sets the wheels in motion to redress the injustice created by the 2012 law, and introduce a properly regulated embryo freezing law. The framework is already in place, in part through the existence of a regulator that monitors IVF applications.

It is the medical procedure, and not just a prevailing political mind-set, that now has to enter the 21st century.