Catholic organisations taken to task over incorrect claims on genetic testing

Anti-choice campaigner Miriam Sciberras, who previously campaigned against embryo freezing, hits out at proposed rules for genetic testing for hereditary and unwanted diseases

Miriam Sciberras
Miriam Sciberras

The anti-choice organization Life Network has hit out at proposed amendments to Malta’s IVF law to allow IVF parents to select embryos free of hereditary diseases, by dubbing them “eugenics”.

The proposed rules will enforce a new protocol that will allow testing for various monogenetic diseases like Huntingtons Disease, a neuro-degenerative disease for which there is no cure. But the government will not allow the discarding of unwanted embryos.

Miriam Sciberras, a campaigner against IVF rules for embryo freezing, claimed embryo selection under preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), “does not deliver a ‘healthy baby’ but provides a tool to enable the selection of which baby will live and which baby will be frozen in perpetuity.”

Her statement was signed by Caritas Malta and the Church’s marriage counselling unit Moviment ta’ Kana, as well as other Catholic organisations.

Malta’s pro-choice doctors Doctors For Choice issued an instant reply to the Catholic organisations, calling their claims an insult to those who couples who have genetic disorders and shows a lack of basic understanding of biology.

“As an organisation that regularly hears from people who need reproductive services, we have heard directly from couples with mono-genetic disorders who do not want to risk passing on the disorder, or a major form of the disorder, to their children,” Dr Chris Barbara said.

“Their only option so far has been to spend several thousand Euro to have PGD-IVF abroad, an expense they incur just because they were unlucky enough to be born carrying a genetic disorder.

“The status quo is discriminatory against these couples, and the amendments to IVF law will seek to address this, at least partially. It is heartless to continue telling these disadvantaged couples ‘sorry, Malta cannot help you, go get what you need abroad at your own expense’. We can do better than this.”

Barbara also said Sciberras’s claims that PGT does not guarantee ‘healthy babies’ was incorrect. “It shows a lack of a basic understanding of biology and worse still a lack of empathy towards parents seeking to raise children free of exceptional health conditions which have caused suffering in their own families. Embryos are not babies.

“Most embryos fail to produce a viable pregnancy, let alone a baby. Equating embryos to babies, or human persons, is not scientifically sound and this faulty ideology is why people in Malta continue to be denied reproductive health services that are available in other countries.”

Barbara said that PGD-IVF does help deliver healthy babies and avert suffering. “It is time we start valuing actual people and science rather than impose faulty ideology.”

IVF rules allow the freezing of embryos, namely blastocysts that develop five days after an egg is fertilized with sperm, when these are not implanted in a woman. They can be later thawed and implanted during an IVF cycle.

Life Network claims

“Every embryo created through an IVF cycle is a distinct human being,” Sciberras said in a statement. “Under the proposed procedure every embryo will be tested for possible monogenic disorders. After the diagnosis, only an embryo that does not test positive to the disorder is transferred into his or her mother’s womb. The embryos that carry the unwanted mutation are frozen indefinitely.”

Sciberras accused the government of masking the fact that discarded embryos could still be up for adoption. “In the last two years the stockpile of frozen embryos has risen from 180 to over 300 this year – no mention of any having been adopted. One wonders how embryos discarded by their own parents would be considered for adoption by others,” she said.

Sciberras also called PGT selection “a breach of the fundamental human principle that no person should determine who is to live and who is to die”.

She called the proposed amendments to the IVF law “fundamentally discriminatory” by implying the lives of people living with unwanted genetic conditions are valueless. “Human embryos with the same genetic conditions do not deserve to be intentionally frozen. It accentuates a mentality that discriminates against people living with disabilities. Today there are people living with genetic conditions,” she said.