Opposition votes for embryo genetic testing after U-turn

Changes to the IVF law, including embryo genetic testing, received unanimous support in parliament at the end of the Second Reading   

Opposition leader Bernard Grech
Opposition leader Bernard Grech

Embryo genetic testing as part of the IVF process cleared parliament’s Second Reading, by unanimous vote on Wednesday.

When the Speaker called the vote on the changes being proposed by government, the Opposition did not call a division, which means they supported the Bill.

Before the vote, Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech announced his party will support the introduction of preimplantation genetic testing (PGTM) for monogenic disorders, but urged the government to make polar body testing (PBT) on female oocytes an option for those with a moral objection to PGT.

Health Minister Chris Fearne pointed out that the protocol tabled in parliament as part of the Bill already mentions PBT as an option alongside PGT.

Grech’s statement in the House put paid to a previous position expressed by his shadow health minister Stephen Spiteri on PGTM.

In a U-turn, Grech said testing on embryos at risk for the incurable Huntington’s Disease was an “efficient scientific tool” to give couples the opportunities to have healthy children.

His statement to the House came days after the Maltese Catholic archdiocese issued its position paper against PGTM, opting instead to support only polar body testing in a bid to avoid the discarding of unwanted embryos.

“If there is another tool, which is also good, which has its own success, which is permissible under current law, why are we not considering it?” the Opposition leader asked, in saying prospective IVF couples should have access to both options.

He said Opposition MPs had met with both couples and individuals faced with fertility problems. “We not only spoke to couples and individuals, and felt their pain, but we spoke to someone who has Huntington’s disease in her family. She had children before the diagnosis, and now her children do not want to have children for themselves, so you can understand their pain,” Grech said.

Grech paid tribute to former PN administrations that introduced IVF legislation, referring to rules introduced in 2012 by the Gonzi administration that banned embryo freezing but regulated oocyte (female ova) freezing for the purposes of IVF.

Grech did however speak about the benefits of PGTM, contrasting with previous speeches by PN MPs.

Last week, Opposition health spokesperson Stephen Spiteri said the Nationalist Party parliamentary group cannot give its green light to PGT because it goes against the embryo’s right to life. “Huntington’s reduces life expectancy, creates social, medical and psychological problems but there are people living with this condition and what do we tell them?” Spiteri had said.

Grech said couples who do not want to make use of PGTM, could opt for polar body testing for eight out of nine of the monogenic diseases listed in the proposed law, saying this pre-fertilisation test would avoid the creation of a stockpile of unwanted embryos frozen permanently.

But he criticised claims by deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne that unwanted embryos frozen after being found at risk of a monogenic disease, could be available for adoption. “Let’s not kid people, it would be very rare, if it actually happens, that someone will adopt an embryo with a genetic disease.”

Malta still outlaws abortion, a legal impediment that blocks the proposed IVF amendments from giving IVF parents the option to discard unwanted embryos tested for monogenetic diseases, or to be used for scientific research.

Immoral to vote against – Chris Fearne

In his concluding speech, Chris Fearne played down Grech’s comments on frozen embryos.

“It is not true that there will be a lot of unused embryos. When you carry out IVF, you want to use the embryos,” he said. “There only four that will be offered up for adoption. From 33 pregnancies, 25 were frozen embryos.”

He argued it would be immoral to vote against the amendments given the technology is available.

“Vote in favour, let’s not beat around the bush. We have the technology,” Fearne told the opposition.

He said only offering PBT would mean stopping “halfway”. “PBT would mean that there would still be the risk of infants having genetic disorders, it is only PGTM which covers the whole range of testing.”

The health minister concluded his speech by reading out a letter sent to him by a couple who had a child with GM1 gangliosidosis, a genetic disorder that progressively destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

The couple said their young boy Dean, born last November, contracted GM1 in February. “The joy turned into sadness and confusion.”

They said that any attempts at conceiving naturally would mean their children could get the disease.

“Today, we will vote so stories like these do not happen again,” an emotional Fearne concluded.

Labour MPs Owen Bonnici, Omar Farrugia, Rosianne Cutajar, Davina Sammut Hili and Randolph Debattista also addressed the debate.