PN MPs to break whip and vote against IVF amendments

Nationalist MPs opposed to PGD-testing on embryos could vote against the Bill or even not attend the House

Adrian Delia is among the PN backbenchers who will rebel against the party whip on amendments to the IVF law
Adrian Delia is among the PN backbenchers who will rebel against the party whip on amendments to the IVF law

A number of Nationalist MPs are planning to vote against amendments to the IVF bill allowing preimplantation genetic testing on embryos, which enters its third reading on Wednesday, even though the PN said it will back the bill.

Party leader Bernard Grech will stick to a parliamentary group decision to vote in favour, despite undercurrents now emerging inside his backbench to have a free vote. Sources said the MPs may even go as far as calling for a division in Parliament, leading to all MPs individually recording their position officially, as opposed to simply voicing their opposition when voting and the amendments being approved “without unanimous approval”.

At least ten MPs have so far confirmed to having publicly or privately expressed their intention to break the party whip, and vote against proposed amendments to the Embryo Protection Act, aimed at permitting the testing of embryos for a series of monogenetic diseases.

Former party leader Adrian Delia, who is the most vocal in opposing the party line, is insisting he will vote against the amendments, claiming that MPs should not be denied the right to vote according to their conscience on issues that he claims pose risks to an embryo.

The PGT test is available in many countries, but Maltese couples who want to break a cycle of hereditary disease are forced to resort to expensive medical treatment abroad. The treatment means fertile couples at risk of a disease must resort to IVF and have the embryos tested before implantation.

Delia told MaltaToday that the PN should should do everything possible to assist couples undergoing IVF treatment, but “not at the price of human life especially when there is no reason to endanger human life in the first place.”

Delia said polar body testing could be used instead of PGT, although the testing is not suitable for all hereditary diseases.

Party sources confirmed that long discussions within the PN parliamentary group had focused on the fact that – at all costs – the party remained pro-life and that medical tests on the embryo could not be approved. But the group was also unanimous on having protocols allowing testing of the woman’s eggs, but not of the embryo.

Although the parliamentary group voted for a position in favour of the law, the current backlash over a free vote only started later. PN sources said that MPs like Ivan Bartolo, of Mosta, was not present for the meetings that took place, spanning 11 hours in total; Adrian Delia left early in the first session; and Gozo MP Alex Borg did not state any position during the entire debate; Rebekah Cilia stated her position against the legal amendments but did not call for a free vote.

While other MPs would not comment on their voting intentions when contacted, MaltaToday learned that PN secretary general Michael Piccinino had instructed all MPs not to talk to this newspaper’s journalist, after initial contact had been made with a number of MPs.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, sources within the parliamentary group said other MPs had expressed their intention to vote against the amendments, either in private conversations or in private online chat groups. Among those identified are veteran MPs Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, Ivan Bartolo (Mosta MP), Paula Mifsud Bonnici and newly-elected Alex Borg and Jerome Caruana Cilia.

Other MPs had apparently asked Grech for a free vote, inclding Ivan J. Bartolo (owner of 6PM), but MaltaToday is informed Grech said the decision of the parliamentary group was that no free vote would be given, and that the party would stay its course. 

It is as yet unclear whether these four MPs will be voting against the amendments on Wednesday or whether they will fall in line with the whip. But internal online chatter among different groups of MPs increased exponentially in the past 24 hours, leading to speculation that more MPs could decide to break the whip come crunch time.

Changes and u-turns

The changes proposed, including the introduction of embryo genetic testing, cleared parliament’s committee stage last week.

The amendments passed with minimal changes, paving the way for pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos to become part of the IVF process.

A protocol drawn up by the Embryo Protection Authority includes criteria outlining eligibility for PGT and which inheritable disorders can be tested for.

The protocol currently lists nine diseases and conditions, including Huntington’s Disease.

During the vote on the second reading of the bill, Grech said his party would support PGT testing for monogenic disorders. The bill also makes available make polar body testing (PBT) on female oocytes as an option for those with a moral objection to PGT.

His statement in the House was in direct contrast to the position previously expressed by his shadow health minister Stephen Spiteri on PGT.

But 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.

In committee stage, an amendment proposed by the Opposition included the need for protocols to be introduced or amended by Legal Notice.

And an initial proposal by the PN tightening the reference to PGT was immediately shot down by government MPs until compromise was reached that did not change the thrust of government’s proposal to allow specialists to choose the best care possible for their patients.