Embryonic emotions | Miriam Sciberras

Life Network Malta chairperson Dr Miriam Sciberras puts up a spirited defence, when asked directly if her NGOs’ tactics are manipulative and exploitative

Miriam Sciberras (Photo: Ray Attard)
Miriam Sciberras (Photo: Ray Attard)

Passions invariably run high when debating beginning-of-life issues. In this respect, the ongoing discussion on proposed changes to the ‘Embryo Protection Act’ – the law that regulates assisted fertility treatment in Malta – has been no different to any other controversy surrounding (however remotely) the unborn child in this country.

At the forefront of this debate is ‘Life Network Malta’, an umbrella NGO for various affiliated pro-life groups, which has recently stepped up its campaign against the introduction of embryo freezing. This campaign has now extended to a petition calling for a Constitutional amendment which aims to prevent abortion from ever being legalised.

Clearly, the scope of the campaign has extended far beyond the remit of the proposed amendment itself. Equally clearly, a herculean effort is being made to somehow equate ‘embryo freezing’ with ‘abortion’… even though the intention behind the former is to bring new life into the world, whereas the latter aims for the opposite.

Dr Miriam Sciberras, chairperson of Life Malta Network, recently added to this apparent confusion, by stressing at a press conference that she was ‘not campaigning against embryo freezing’… even when the NGO itself seems to be in full campaign mode.

So my first question to her when we meet: is Life Network Malta campaigning against embryo freezing, or isn’t it?

“We are not saying we are not against embryo freezing. But embryo freezing is only part of the bigger picture. To put things into perspective: the Embryo Protection Act, as it stands, strikes the right balance between the rights of the infertile couple, who we all agree need to be helped as much as possible, and the rights of the child. This is not an ordinary medical treatment: it involves a third person, and that third person is a living child. The rights of this human life need to be protected, too.”

Here we come to the first of many impasses. Isn’t it a slight exaggeration to define a newly frozen human embryo as a ‘child’? The word has a meaning, and cannot be correctly applied even to a new-born baby. Let alone a fertilised human ova…

“It is a living child,” she asserts. “Let me just explain our position, then you can ask me what you like. When the amendments started being talked about, the proposals were donation of sperm and ova – the anonymous donation of gametes, on top of everything else. So we are talking about intentionally creating orphans…”

This is, in fact, precisely what I intended to ask. From ‘children’ they have now become ‘orphans’. Both are decidedly emotive words, to describe newly fertilised ova which haven’t even begun to develop into foetal stage. Isn’t it a bit extreme? Bear in mind we’re not even talking about killing the embryo… merely freezing it, at a point in its development when there is absolutely no possibility of the embryo experiencing pain or suffering.

“That’s the difference between us. To me, that IS a child. There is no difference. I myself have not changed in any way since I was an embryo…”

I hasten to assure her that she has… otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation…

“My humanity is the same, though. My genetic code is the same.”

But is humanity something that can be broken down to just a genetic code… a strip of amino acids reading out a perpetual information loop? It’s a dangerous definition. Every single human cell contains the same code…

“What I mean is that when I was an embryo, all my characteristics were there. I was part of the genus Homo sapiens.”

In what way, then, can she justify using the word orphans in this scenario?

“If you are proposing anonymous sperm and egg donation, the child born… and this is what they say themselves: grown up people who are now speaking out. This technology has been performed for years, and if you look at other countries you will find groups like ‘Anonymous US’ in America, or ‘Tangled Webs’ in England. These people, who are 30 years old plus are speaking out about the suffering they went through, because they were created intentionally to be deprived of their biological mother and father.”

But was that really the intention? Some might say it was to help bring them into the world in the first place. Besides: the same problems are also associated with adoption. Like children born through gamete donation, adopted children also struggle with the phenomenon of biological parents they might never meet. Why is this only an issue with IVF?

“There is a major difference – adoption involves a victim of circumstance. There is a very big difference between creating an intentional pain, and dealing with the pain that was already there….”

And yet, the intention behind IVF is not to cause pain. It is to overcome the medical issue of infertility, which ironically – given that her association calls itself ‘pro-life’ – also means it is intended to make life possible, where it otherwise would not be. In what way is opposing that technology an example of being ‘pro-life’? You could argue it is the opposite…

“That’s what you’re saying, not what we’re saying. It’s a manipulation of words…”

In that case, we can always compare notes on our respective manipulations later. The question still stands, though. Isn’t it a contradiction that a ‘pro-life’ lobby opposes medical technologies that help with the creation of life?

“If we are helping people to create life, and children are being born of this technology – undoubtedly, life is being created. Our point is that these children cannot be made to measure to suit adult needs, without taking into consideration the rights of the child. Otherwise, you’d be turning children into objects. Amendments to this law will weaken protection of the child from conception. And that means that suddenly, we will be treating these created children as objects, made simply to suit adults’s needs. We have infertile couples, and their pain is evident… we’re agreed on that.”

What does her movement say to these people, incidentally?

“We are all in favour of the government helping these couples. And we have said that there are other ways in which this can be done…”

But that’s not all Life Network Malta is saying. One of its committee members, Dr Patrick Pullicino, had this to say on the organisation’s official blog: “Even if you don’t believe that children are a gift that only God should give, there is something sacred and even mystical in the way that children are conceived through the love of natural sexual intercourse. Test-tube conception devalues sexual intercourse and the family ties that it enriches.” 

Does she agree that assisted conception ‘devalues sexual intercourse’?

“That’s not what I said. I can only comment about my own position. You’re putting words into my mouth….”

It was said by a committee member of the NGO of which Dr Sciberras in chairperson… and I’m asking about Life Network Malta’s position, not just her own. She is its chairperson, and cannot exactly disclaim responsibility for the organisation’s publicly expressed views. What emerges from this is an ingrained ideological position, based on a value judgement system that clearly places more value on natural birth than assisted. Isn’t that unfair on people who can’t have children by natural means?

“I will not comment on other people’s opinions. Our main issue is the protection of life at all stages.”

Let’s talk about embryo freezing, then.  What we are actually discussing is a procedure that freezes fertilised ova for eventual implantation. The intention is certainly not to kill them – quite the reverse – so what is the actual objection from a pro-life perspective?

“We’re not saying that embryo freezing equates to abortion. But there is a link. The problem with embryo freezing is that it temporarily suspends the life of the embryo. And you are putting the embryo at risk of losing its life. During the thawing process, 10 to 30% will die…”

Those statistics are questionable. Other sources put the figure at closer to five per cent. But even if we accept her figures… how do they compare to nature’s statistics? We are after all talking about a technology that steps in where natural methods fail. One reason why natural methods fail is that newly-fertilised embryos are rejected as ‘foreign bodies’. In most cases, their (brief) existence would remain completely unknown to the parents.

Considering that couples only resort to assisted fertility treatment after trying unsuccessfully to have children… the implication is that a higher success rate in assisted fertility would result in fewer spontaneous abortions. What would she ultimately prefer – that some embryos are lost in the thawing process, or that a far greater number are lost in fruitless attempts to bear children?

“There is a very important difference we are not making here. A miscarriage is something that happens in nature, over which we have no control…”

Same goes for any disease or condition. Even infertility, which this technology tries to help resolve…

“Yes, but when we are trying to make a law to regulate a procedure, you cannot intentionally put a life in danger. It falls under the Hippocratic oath: ‘First, do no harm’. If there is a chance to prejudice life, you don’t take that chance. When there is another technique where you can avoid that, it would be much wiser to avoid putting that life at risk.”

Again, this depends heavily on the emotive attachment to the word ‘life’ here, which is not necessarily a reflection of the reality.

“I assure you, I have been speaking about this for the last four years. The people I have met who have given me their experience… it’s not just about emotional attachment. I have met people who have frozen embryos, and they have this big issue that they cannot let those embryos see the light of day. They even dream about them. They have to go to counselling. They would have had two children… and would like to bring the rest into the world, but can’t. And they don’t want to offer them up for adoption because they are their own children. This is how they describe them…”

No doubt, but isn’t this also precisely why it is unfair to turn up the emotive factor, by resorting to blatantly emotive language? And it’s not the only tactic used, either. Concurrently with its campaign against embryo freezing, Life Network Malta is also resuscitating a Constitutional amendment petition which aims to prevent abortion from ever being introduced. 

None of Malta’s three political parties have ever declared the intention to legalise abortion in Malta; all are resolutely against. So why press the issue at all, if not to fan fears that abortion is somehow ‘imminent’, in order to bolster support for a campaign about something that has nothing to do with abortion?

“At the moment, the law as it is protects life from the moment of conception. If we somehow tamper with the law, and remove this protection, that means we are opening a window which would eventually lead to abortion. Abortion always comes in gradually: first because of the exception, then the exception becomes the rule. What we are saying is that if you reduce protection of life from conception, eventually abortion will come in. Abortion only comes in where life is not protected…”

Meanwhile, this link has been further strengthened: this week, Dr Sciberras’s organisation invited Gianna Jessen – a pro-life campaigner and survivor of a late-term abortion carried out in the USA – to weigh in on an unrelated debate about assisted fertility. 

Abortions of any kind are not legal in Malta; the type we are talking about would be illegal in most European countries. Jessen’s experience has, in a word, nothing to do with embryo freezing. What was the purpose of bringing her to Malta, other than to further strengthen this ‘link’ between two totally unrelated issues? 

“She also happens to protect life in all circumstances,” Sciberras points out. “She is in Malta, not because we are discussing abortion coming to Malta. She is here because she believes that life must be protected from conception. We brought her here because there is a danger that, if we lower our protection of life from conception, human lives would be at risk.”

But isn’t this also a case of exploitation? This person went through a terrible trauma – which has resulted in medical issues that need not be gone into here – and Life Network Malta seems keen to milk her misery for the benefit of a campaign that isn’t even related to the issue at hand…

“It isn’t exploitation, no. She really loves and wants to speak about protecting life from conception. And she’s very happy to be in Malta, also because there is no abortion here. She feels safe.”

Well, she’s also a little late to be any real danger of being aborted… but still, what is the relevance to the issues we are actually discussing in Malta? I’ll concede that my line of questioning is pointed at this juncture. This is deliberate, because I think Malta’s pro-life lobby needs to seriously be challenged on this.

Isn’t it unethical to go to such lengths – distorting issues, even exploiting an abortion survivor’s experience – to engender antipathy towards a medical practice that doesn’t even have anything to do with abortion?

“No, that’s your dishonest interpretation. We brought an abortion survivor to speak about the protection of life from conception, because it’s a good thing to speak about protecting life from conception…”

At the same time, however, Dr Sciberras is also campaigning to influence legislation that will have an impact on people who have a medical condition. She is campaigning to limit the options available to these people who need medical treatment…

“No, we are not trying to deprive childless couples of having children; nor are we trying to ruin their options. It is that they are not being told the truth. They are given false hopes: they are told that, if there is another technology, their success rate would be much higher. And this is not fair to them. If the success rates are the same…”

But they’re not the same: the success rate for Malta is 8% out of 51 cases in a year. That’s one third the success rate of other countries…

“You can’t evaluate on one set of statistics. You have to also look at where we’re going. If we have a new technique… if we have a high success rate compared to other countries…”

That’s the whole point though, isn’t it? We don’t... 

Here she points towards the same papers mentioned earlier. Malta’s success rate, she argues, can be improved if we bring over the right expertise, refine our technique, and give oocyte vitrification more time to prove itself.

“The government can help in other ways, too. By giving couples extra chances, which are free. At the moment, they only have three chances on the NHS. Why not give them more chances, if there are more eggs? Why not extend the offer of free chances on the National Health Service? This was one of our proposals…”

That’s a fair point, on which we might even be in agreement. As there are unlikely to be any others, it seems a sensible place to end the interview.