President who called embryo freezing ‘moral travesty’ could face test on PGT

Parliament is expected to approve changes to the IVF law, which include the introduction of pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos

President George Vella (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
President George Vella (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Speculation is rife among Labour ministers as to whether President George Vella could refuse to sign a law to allow IVF couples to test embryos for hereditary and neurodegenerative diseases.

MaltaToday understands the Bill, which heads into its Third Reading in parliament before Vella’s assent, could be a test for a President whose past comments on embryo freezing – a natural corollary for genetic testing – left little to the imagination.

After stepping down as an MP, in 2018, the former foreign minister dubbed Labour’s regularisation of embryo freezing “a complete travesty of morality”.

The Office of the President last week did not release a comment to MaltaToday when asked specifically over Vella’s position on PGT testing in the IVF Bill when it comes before him for his approval.

In 2021, he was non-committal as to whether he would sign into law a bill introducing genetic testing of embryos produced by IVF. “We will cross the bridges when we come to them,” a spokesperson had told MaltaToday when asked whether the President had any moral objections to PGT.

Any act of parliament requires the President’s signature to become law and refusal to do so – an improbable prospect in Maltese political history – could create a constitutional crisis.

Up until this week, Cabinet sources insisted that Vella remains uncomfortable with PGT and its ethical implications.

The recent appointment of Prof. Frank Bezzina, an academic who does not hail from the political class, as acting president, also raised speculation as to whether a ‘stand-in’ had been appointed should Vella object to give his assent to the bill. MaltaToday understands that Dolores Cristina, who served as acting president for over nine years, never discussed the content of the PGT bill with Vella prior to the appointment of Bezzina.

When in 2018 the Labour administration regularised embryo freezing, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said her assent to the Act was “out of loyalty towards the Constitution and the democratic process”, despite her moral objections.

Coleiro Preca had also issued a statement saying she could have chosen not to be in the country at the time the Bill was in its Third Reading, allowing the acting president to sign the law into power, but that she did not want to shirk her responsibilities.

George Vella has already made his red lines clear, saying that he will sooner resign his role than sign on a law that would introduce abortion in Malta. His statement, albeit couched in more diplomatic wording, was also made during his inaugural speech at the Palace in Valletta when he laid out the direction of his presidency: “As a doctor, I will fight for the health of this country and the respect for life from start to finish of every individual,” Vella said.

PGT will allow parents to ‘discard’ embryos carrying hereditary diseases such as Huntington’s Disease, which embryos will however be frozen indefinitely.

Ideological differences

Before his appointment as head of state, Vella had expressed serious reservations on the IVF law changes pushed by government in 2018. He had branded the IVF bill “a complete travesty of ethics, morality, and human dignity, allegedly to remove ‘discrimination’ imposed by nature herself”.

The bill made embryo freezing legal after it was outlawed back in 2012, and allowed egg and sperm donation, making treatment also accessible to single women and lesbians.

Vella had then questioned why government was going down a “slippery slope” to deliver “the utopic promise of equality”.

In an interview to the Malta Independent in 2018, Vella was paraphrased as someone who believes that “life begins at conception” and that a fertilised egg that leads to human life is “separate and independent from its parents”.

Vella, a medical doctor, disagrees with embryo freezing, and has said that were he to advise an infertile couple he would make them “understand that these are not capricious decisions, that they are decisions that need to be taken with a formed conscience with ethical and moral standards.”

Vella has also said allowing same-sex couples to adopt children via surrogacy was “not nature”, despite having as MP voted in favour of civil unions and gay adoption.

READ ALSO: PGT splits PN as Adrian Delia breaks ranks with Bernard Grech on embryo genetic testing