‘Love is not enough’ | Save the Embryo Protection Act Malta

Meeting the members of Save The Embryo Protection Act Malta, TEODOR RELJIC discovers that biological essentialism, and how it interprets the right of the child, is what truly underpins the opposition to embryo freezing

Anti-embryo freezing campaigners Martha Fitz and Suzanne Vella
Anti-embryo freezing campaigners Martha Fitz and Suzanne Vella

The discussion about the moral viability of embryo freezing appears to hinge on one key ideological issue. Ultimately, it all comes down to how much stock you place on the human being as a biological entity. If the opposition to the notion of embryo freezing presents itself an embattled front against what is perceived to be the cold march of progress, it’s because its exponents appear to be adamant about a – perhaps in some ways quaint – biological essentialism. 

Not for them are any notions that human beings are largely social constructs free to manipulate and reconfigure their fleshly confines at will. Instead, traditional notions about the body – even its gendered dimension – are taken as the gold standard against which any ‘diversions’ are to be measured… and indulged – even considered – only with careful, morally robust scrutiny. 

This, at least, was the impression I got during my discussion with Suzanne Vella, Martha Fitz and Marisa Gatt, members of the Save The Embryo Protection Act Malta. Using social media as well as more conventional media platforms, this group of ‘concerned mothers’ is keen to make its voice heard on the new proposed law of embryo freezing. 

However, the standard associations one would make with such a stance are conspicuously absent from our conversation. There is no mention of religious conviction – at least no explicit one – and anything that could be interpreted as being anti-scientific is also quickly brushed away. 

In fact, the group’s opening gambit clearly reveals their desire to tackle the issue as diplomatically as possible. 

“We don’t want to impose our views on anyone,” Marisa Gatt insists. “All we want to be is a voice in this ongoing discussion…” 

In this instance, the discussion of course hinges on the new proposed law on embryo freezing. Last September, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat declared that he would forge ahead with plans to re-introduce embryo freezing, which was banned in 2013 under the Embryo Protection Act made law by the Nationalist government. As part of this initiative, the health ministry is currently carrying out a review of the Embryo Protection Act, which was the first piece of legislation to address Malta’s unregulated protocols for in vitro fertilization.

The law was remarkable for having outlawed embryo freezing and instead introduced the freezing of eggs – a process called oocyte vitrification – as well as banned any form of sperm or egg donation, and surrogacy.

In fact, the first point of order for the group to mention is that they are in full agreement “with the law as it is today”. 

“The current IVF law at least ensures that the child is born out of the union of its parents,” Suzanne Vella states. 

And rebutting the claim that the group’s initiative seeks to rob prospective parents of yet another attempt at tackling infertility, Martha Fitz adds that, “it’s not that we don’t want infertile couples to get all the help that they need. It’s that there are plenty of safeguards already at their disposal.” 

Another reason why the group deems embryo freezing to not only be ethically problematic, but also unnecessary, is that according to them “the rates of success between IVF and embryo freezing are comparable – nearly equal, in fact”. 

They bolster their view with similar conclusions made by the Committee Opinion of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 2014, which states that, “studies provide good evidence that fertilisation and pregnancy rates using vitrified oocytes (frozen female eggs) are similar to fresh IVF cycles”. Of the same opinion is Dr Elena Porcu, director of the Centre of Infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technologies, University of Bologna, who is specialised in oocyte vitrification which she studied since 1996.

“If they weren’t in fact equal, we could open this up to further debate, of course,” Marisa Gatt says. “But our fear is that the debate we’re having now is down to the fact that embryo freezing appears to be the more ‘cost efficient’ option. And the right of children should never be reduced to a matter of mere cost efficiency…” 

Suzanne Vella even takes this one step further, suggesting that there may be direct economic interests involved. 

“I don’t want to speculate, but perhaps someone is planning to open up a new clinic that would cater for embryo freezing?” Though Vella insists that this isn’t based on any hard evidence, it does frame the group’s concerns: in their view, embryo freezing is a bridge too far – pointing towards the complete instrumentalisation of the child-rearing process. 

The fact however remains that the proposed revival of embryo freezing in Malta won’t be incorporating some of the more problematic elements the law allows for in other countries. Embryos won’t be analysed for congenital diseases, disability or gender traits, for example, and neither will spare embryos be given for research. Surely, this dampens the concerns that embryo freezing is effectively a new form of ‘eugenics’…? 

“No, because by definition, this law will automatically allow for some form of selection to take place. If you’re choosing embryos, you’re automatically discriminating, and we feel that this is unfair to the child,” Vella insists. 

Predictably, the group’s main rallying call is the right of the unborn child. 

“We are speaking about this issue because we love children,” Marisa Gatt says. “Not just our own children, but the children of all society as a whole. And it’s because of this that we feel we have to speak up about this… because we want to give voice to the most vulnerable members of our society. Now, children are already vulnerable as it is, let alone embryos…” 

This once again brings us to a common motif ¬– the group’s ‘Natural is best’ ethos. In an inspired intermeshing of the traditional and the contemporary, Gatt comments on how the “organic revolution” in nutrition and physical wellbeing only vindicates their stance further. 

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the group is also opposed to surrogacy and sperm donation. 

In what is a familiar tactic for most advocacy groups, Vella flags up testimonials of children born out of sperm donation (the pain of an absent father), and that surrogacy cuts off what they deem to be the crucial physical bond between mother and child in the early days during pregnancy – something they themselves have experienced directly as mothers. 

“We also strongly believe in the difference between genders. The child needs both a male and a female presence,” Gatt says – confirming the group’s commitment to the traditional biological ideal. 

“How both a father and a mother handle the child, especially during those vulnerable early days, is important. Love is not enough.”

Tommorow’s Reporter will discuss IVF with junior minister Chris Fearne.