Prime Minister ‘resolute on embryo freezing’

New IVF law will increase number of eggs that can be fertilised to five, and limits implantable embryos to two • Gay women couples will have access to IVF on the NHS

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has declared that he will forge ahead with plans to re-introduce embryo freezing, which was banned in 2013 under the Embryo Protection Act made law by the Nationalist government.

“I am resolute to introduce embryo freezing,” Muscat told MaltaToday.

The health ministry is currently carrying out a review of the Embryo Protection Act, which was the first piece of legislation to address Malta’s unregulated protocols for in vitro fertilization.

The law was remarkable for having outlawed embryo freezing and instead introduced the freezing of eggs – a process called oocyte vitrification – as well as banned any form of sperm or egg donation, and surrogacy.

As Opposition leader, Muscat had voted in favour of the Embryo Protection Act. “This was a compromise that allowed, at the very least, the introduction of a law.”

At the time, IVF was only offered by private hospitals. The national hospital, Mater Dei, had been equipped with IVF equipment but the service was never placed on the national health registry.

The Embryo Protection Act limits the fertilization of the female eggs to just two ova, while the rest of the ova produced during the stimulation process are frozen for their later fertilization. Only under permission by the Embryo Protection Authority can a couple increase their chances of pregnancy by increasing the number of fertilized eggs to three.

But Muscat said that “any IVF law, for it to be successful, must have the function of freezing”.

The prime minister said that under the new law that is to be proposed, the number of eggs that can be fertilized will increase to five.

Of these fertilized eggs, a maximum of two embryos will be able to be implanted in the mother at one go.

In IVF, it is never a guarantee that each single egg that gets harvested from a woman, will eventually produce an embryo once fertilized.

Muscat told MaltaToday that if out of those five eggs, more than two embryos are produced, the remainder will be frozen so that they can be re-used again by the couple for another cycle.

The Embryo Protection Authority will also assume responsibility for those frozen embryos that are not used, if the couple goes beyond its fertility age. They will be offered up for adoption.

If the couple does not wish the embryos to be adopted, it can file a court application so that a judge takes a decision on the matter.

Muscat also said that the new law would, contrary to the present legislation, allow gay women to access the service.

“This law will give the opportunity for more couples to be able to form families, and for gay women couples to have children and start their own family.”

MaltaToday understands that surrogacy will not be introduced in the new law.

At the time of the previous law, Muscat had argued that the government’s Embryo Protection Act was a half-baked IVF law “full of horrifying concepts and which was humiliating to parents, children and the medical profession”.

But he had also pointed out that the Embryo Protection Act actually introduced the concept of embryo freezing for exceptional circumstances. “This enjoyed wide parliamentary consensus and destroyed the myth that IVF or embryo freezing was equivalent to abortion.”

Health parliamentary secretary Chris Fearne said that IVF success rates will be further increased by having both freezing of embryos and eggs available on the NHS.

“Embryo freezing, together with the provision for ova and sperm donation, will increase the success rate of IVF and offer the possibility of forming a family to a larger number of couples. The new Act will open the availability of IVF to gay female couples and to single mothers.”

Between January 2013 and June 2015, 411 IVF and ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) cycles were carried out in Malta, 81 of them in the new IVF clinic at Mater Dei Hospital.

In total, 116 viable pregnancies have resulted from these cycles – an overall success rate of 28%, which compares well to the latest figure published by the UK Human Fertilization & Embryo Authority (HFEA) – 25% in 2011.


Opposition from the Church

Labour’s decision to forge ahead with the review of the law is bound to find opposition from the Maltese Catholic Church, as well as pro-life lobby Life Network which on Saturday claimed that embryo freezing would open the doors to abortion.

In 2012, Malta’s bishops sounded their opposition to the legal regulation of IVF in a pastoral letter in which they declared that every technical method that replaces the personal conjugal act “is not acceptable”.

In an appeal to MPs, the bishops – then led by Archbishop Paul Cremona – said an IVF law had to be based on “natural law”.

“A law which does not safeguard these values is morally wrong... For this reason, men of goodwill who are responsible to draw up legislation are duty-bound in conscience to try and achieve the best possible benefits, or as far as possible, to mitigate dangers.”

The Maltese church will also oppose the idea of putting up frozen embryos for adoption. In 2012 it had said that this was not a solution because “serious complications of a medical, psychological and legal nature may arise [and because of] greater ethical problems.”

In explaining their opposition, the bishops had said that IVF involves the creation of several embryos and that even though some die a natural death shortly fertilisation, these were “being sacrificed and instrumentalized so that a child may be born.”

“The embryo, even while it is frozen, is still in possession of certain inalienable rights. A democratic society is duty-bound to oversee that the laws which protect these embryos are observed.”

PN stand on IVF

The Nationalist Party will be the one to watch when it comes to voting on IVF.

So far, its women’s branch, the MNPN, has rubbished proposals from their Labour counterparts in favour of embryo freezing as “kite-flying” for the Prime Minister’s eventual Bill legislating embryo freezing.

The MNPN accused Muscat of hiding behind Nisa Laburisti to manipulate public opinion over changes to IVF laws. “The out-of-the-blue statement by the Labour Women in the thick of summer shows Muscat’s way of doing politics. He prefers to hide behind the non-functioning Labour Women’s outfit to fly a kite and manipulate public opinion instead of coming clean and telling the people what he thinks,” the MNPN said.

More in National