Government silent on removal of ban on embryo freezing

The law introduced by the previous Nationalist administration bans embryo freezing and embraced the novel science of freezing the female gametes, which are then fertilised in pairs

The inter-ministerial working group reviewing the IVF law will be suggesting revisions that could lead to updates in the Embryo Protection Act as well as the entitlement criteria for patients receiving the service.

However, the health ministry did not explicitly confirm whether the group would be making specific recommendations on whether the ban on embryo freezing should remain. 

Controversially the law introduced by the previous Nationalist administration bans embryo freezing and embraced the novel science of freezing the female gametes – ova – which are then fertilised in pairs: after harvesting, two eggs are fertilised with sperm, while the rest of the eggs are frozen for later use. 

Unlike embryo freezing, vitrification skirts the ethical dilemmas of leaving ‘unclaimed’ human embryos in freezers. No more than two ova can be fertilised during each fertilisation cycle, and access to IVF is regulated by an embryology authority to decide who is entitled to the free treatment.

A health ministry spokesperson told MaltaToday that the working group’s main remit is to assess “how the Embryo Protection Act, introduced in 2012, is functioning in practice”.

The working group is chaired by Chief Medical Officer Denis Vella Baldacchino and includes a number of experts – gynaecologists Mark Brincat and Mark Sant, the vice-president of the Embryo Protection Authority, Simone Attard, Anna Lisa Sciortino, Silvan Agius, and Sarah Portelli.

Josie Muscat kept ‘in the dark’ 

Since its introduction, the IVF law has been contested by experts who contend that the controversial treatment reduces the pregnancy rate by half.

To date 109 couples have had IVF treatment fully funded by the Department of Health. Of these, 33 have gone into pregnancy with three babies having been born, while a number of other mothers are in their pregnancy stage

In comments to MaltaToday, Josie Muscat, the doctor who for the past 24 years led Malta’s most active infertility clinic, said that neither he nor the private hospital he runs has been contacted by the working group.

“There has been no contact at all, we are kept in the dark on such matters,” he said. 

Muscat insisted that the IVF law which limits the fertilisation of eggs to two was driving patients abroad and he called on the government to introduce amendments which would allow patients who ask to have more eggs fertilized to seek treatment in private hospitals in Malta.

“People who afford to seek treatment abroad have a better chance then patients who cannot go abroad,” the St James Hospital owner said.

“Why shouldn’t we allow patients who ask to have three eggs fertilised instead of two after being properly counselled? Why this discrimination?”

He added that the arbitrary cut-off age of 43 also discriminates against older people and impinges on their right to have equal opportunities. 

The conservative former MP stressed that not all patients were being treated equally, claiming that the government was pandering to requests by the gay community for its own electoral exigencies, while the needs of other people are being ignored. 

Currently, the Embryo Protection Act restricts IVF services to “two persons of the opposite sex” who are either “united in marriage” or “in a stable relationship with each other”.

On its introduction, gay rights activists dubbed the law as “unashamedly homophobic” because it denies access to medical services to same-sex couples.