Labour split on embryo freezing

Prime Minister remains resolute over embryo freezing despite splits in party • Two cabinet members, Whip will not back law

At least 10 MPs have expressed reservations on embryo freezing - including ministers George Vella, Deborah Schembri and whip Godfrey Farrugia (L-R)
At least 10 MPs have expressed reservations on embryo freezing - including ministers George Vella, Deborah Schembri and whip Godfrey Farrugia (L-R)

The Labour parliamentary group is split over a push by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to introduce legislation for embryo freezing.

Informed sources who spoke to MaltaToday gave a clear picture of the opposition that Muscat is facing from several of his backbenchers, and also from within his Cabinet – one of the first signs where he is being denied the typical unanimity his nine-seat majority has so far guaranteed.

It is unclear whether Joseph Muscat even intends seeing the bill through before the end of the legislature: a spokesperson for the Office of the Prime Minister would only say that Muscat “has nothing to add to what he has already stated” when asked whether there was a commitment on presenting the law before the next election.

Muscat last year declared that he would forge ahead with plans to re-introduce embryo freezing, which was outlawed by the PN administration in 2013. “I am resolute to introduce embryo freezing,” Muscat had told MaltaToday in what many MPs interpreted as a flexing of his political muscle.

Embryo freezing was banned in 2013 when the Embryo Protection Act was introduced, with support from both sides of the House. That law introduced oocyte vitrification – the freezing of eggs – while banning any form of sperm or egg donation, and surrogacy.

Sources close to the Labour parliamentary group said that initially, almost every Labour MP was against the embryo freezing proposal, although several would “eventually toe the party line”.

But at least 10 MPs are known to have expressed their reservations during parliamentary group meetings. Nonetheless, few have so far publicly admitted their opposition.

Labour MPs not unanimous on embryo freezing law

A Cabinet member who is against embryo freezing is Foreign Affairs Minister George Vella, who told MaltaToday he would vote against the legislation if this is proposed to parliament.

Vella, a general practitioner himself, insisted that egg freezing, or oocyte vitrification, had proved successful enough and he did not see why embryo freezing should be made available on the national register, unless extreme cases dictate a need for the better of two evils. “This was not part of the electoral manifesto and I will vote against it… I believe this is a matter of a free vote,” Vella said.

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela – said to be reluctant on embryo freezing – was non-committal on his voting intentions when asked, insisting that it “will depend on the final text of the Bill” that will be presented to Parliament.

“I am pro-life and not pro-death, and I will continue to steadfastly oppose abortion and euthanasia. However, I am in favour of IVF as it helps create life.”

This was not part of the electoral manifesto and I will vote against it George Vella

Abela was even reluctant to express his personal opinion on the very concept of embryo freezing, adding that he would be in a much-informed position once the bill is drafted.

Government whip Godfrey Farrugia and junior minister Deborah Schembri have publicly stated they will not support embryo freezing.

When asked by MaltaToday, Schembri said that she was against embryo freezing although she does see the need for “certain changes”. “It will be up to the Prime Minister to decide whether to give a free vote or not,” she added.

Farrugia, also a GP, has already made his intentions clear in a religious pamphlet that gets posted to domestic residences, Is-Sliem, in which he spoke of the embryo’s “right to live” and against “the killing of embryos”. Here he echoes a similar opposition raised by his partner, the former Labour MP turned independent, Marlene Farrugia.

Backbencher Etienne Grech, another GP, has taken a more middle-of-the-road approach, arguing that there are valid ethical arguments for not freezing, but also scientific facts that support potential tangible human benefits.

Parliamentary secretary for the elderly Justyne Caruana and backbenchers Franco Mercieca, Silvio Parnis and Manuel Mallia chose not to share their thoughts on embryo freezing. Caruana did not reply to MaltaToday’s email; Mallia refused to commit on a position, telling this newspaper he was abroad but saying that he would “cross the bridge when [the party] comes to it”; Parnis said it would be “premature to comment at this stage”; whilst Mercieca, an ophthalmologist, said he “looked forward to further exhaustive discussion” – again a sign of MPs not willing to take a stand before the issue is truly thrashed out in the parliamentary group.

Piloted by junior health minister Chris Fearne, the review of the IVF law is still on the parliamentary group’s agenda although discussions appear to have reached a hiatus, an MP told MaltaToday.

An inter-ministerial committee is now looking into the introduction of embryo vitrification, which in contrast to the technology of slow freezing, is said to be a more efficient method for the cryopreservation of embryos.

Between January 2014 and January 2015, the live-birth rate of Malta’s current system of assisted reproduction stood at just 8% of the 51 IVF cycles completed on the national health serve.

The low rate of births from the system of freezing the ova is one of the factors informing the government’s legislative drive to widen access to assisted reproductive technology.

According to the government, in the 30 months since its introduction, there were 411 IVF and intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) cycles up to June 2015: 116 resulted in viable pregnancies.

Despite the clinical pregnancy rate standing at 30%, the government insists that the live birth rates have not been satisfactory.

But ethical issues over the fate of additional embryos that could be left ‘unwanted’ by parents has garnered opposition by both the Church and the citizen group Save the Embryo Protection Act Malta.

The Church has issued a position paper, arguing against any changes to the current law, which it said “safeguards the legitimate interests of the prospective child and it champions appropriate standards of ethics in fertility treatment.”

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil has not taken a clear stand on the issue, perhaps unwilling to pit party liberals and conservatives. He has previously called on Muscat to hold a public consultation on the thorny subject.

But while he bides his time on another of the prime minister’s bold campaigns, it seems it is the Labour ‘rebels’ that will set the agenda for Muscat.

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