Embryo freezing was accepted as a principle in 2012, Joseph Muscat insists

Harking back to the parliamentary debate of 2012 that ushered in the IVF law, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat says what is under consideration today is the widening of a principle agreed back then to introduce embryo freezing in certain circumstances • PD MP Marlene Farrugia says Muscat is being disingenuous as embryo freezing was only included as an extreme measure

Embryo freezing will become an integral part of the IVF process under the amended law
Embryo freezing will become an integral part of the IVF process under the amended law

The changes being proposed to the IVF law are merely widening the scope of embryo freezing, a principle that was already agreed in 2012, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday during the Second Reading of the Bill to amend the Embryo Protection Act, Muscat quoted from his 2012 speech when the IVF law was introduced.

Muscat said the Nationalist Party, then in government, had put forward the law a few weeks before a national election because it knew that the Labour Party had included it in its electoral manifesto.

"The Nationalist Party thought it was a good idea to have the PN imprint on it," he said.

Read more: An idiot’s guide to how Maltese IVF law will change

Muscat said that the PL’s position did not change at all since 2012. The PL Opposition had voted for the IVF law in 2012 but Muscat had described it as an imperfect law.

Turning his sights on the Opposition, Muscat said it was objecting to the amendments not because of disagreement on a scientific or medical point, but on a point of principle. "The principle of embryo freezing was introduced under the PN administration," Muscat insisted.

“We are widening a principle which already exists, in a way which permits us to save almost double the amount of potential lives,” Muscat said.

Existing legislation bans embryo freezing but makes an exception in cases where the embryo cannot be transferred to the womb because of something that happened to the woman. Embryo freezing had been introduced in this way after a long and intense debate in a parliamentary committee that was set up purposely to evaluate the ethically sensitive matters linked to IVF. It was a compromise that reflected the deep divisions on the matter.

Since IVF started being offered at Mater Dei hospital after 2013, there was one case where embryos had to be frozen because the mother fell ill before implantation could take place.

Muscat insisted the principle was introduced in 2012 and the government wanted to widen its scope to give prospective parents the biggest chance possible to have children.

On other issues, such as anonymous gamete donation and surrogacy, Muscat said the government was willing to discuss matters further since they were not issues of principle but tackled sensitive issues that required clarity at law.

Read more: Labour will forge ahead with IVF law changes, Chris Fearne says

“But I cannot arrive to a solution with someone who does not want this Bill to pass, or is altogether against IVF,” Muscat said.

He went on to say that children born of IVF should not be stigmatised. The way in which some are speaking about IVF could make one think twice about telling their children that they were born through IVF, Muscat said.

"They are being spoken of as if they are the devil's children. We shouldn’t say things that would put parents in this situation," Muscat cautioned.

But Democratic Party MP Marlene Farrugia said that Muscat is lying when he says that it was the PN which introduced embryo freezing.

“In medicine, we have to take extreme actions sometimes,” Farrugia said, explaining that embryo freezing was only included as an extreme measure in the original IVF law.

Farrugia further accused the Labour Party of being disingenuous when it says that it is pro-life, saying that since one out of three embryos dies in the process, it could not be considered pro-life.

She went on to refute insinuations that the Democratic Party is against IVF, clarifying that the party is in favour of the creation of dignified life.

Schiavone lambasts 'dictatorship of thought'

Also speaking in Parliament, Nationalist MP Hermann Schiavone said that the right to life is the most important right. Although Muscat said the Bill was not being passed hastily, Schiavone insisted that everything seemed to be decided. "The Labour Party is not even listening to its own camp," he said.

The way the Bill is being discussed is an example of “dictatorship of thought”, Schiavone said. “How can the Prime Minister describe as a hypocrite anyone who has a different opinion?”

“This is a political crisis,” Schiavone said, adding that the Bill needs to be discussed in a serious manner since it is a serious subject. He called on the Prime Minister to heed the President's call and postpone the Bill to enable further discussion.

Other speakers included PN deputy leader Robert Arrigo, who in a chaotic speech cautioned against "playing God" by allowing people to choose whether to have a "blonde, fat, thin" baby through genetic selection.

Read more: Adrian Delia insists PN government would repeal IVF changes, in spite of MPs’ free vote

Labour MP Etienne Grech refuted the notion that embryo freezing is akin to abortion, since the amendments will not allow for embryos to be thrown away.

The amendments will improve the chances for women to become pregnant, as it it give them more opportunities to have children, since they could use the remaining frozen embryos, Grech said.

Parliamentary Secretary for Social Dialogue Aaron Farrugia said that although the government is open for dialogue, it refuses to move towards a watered-down version of the bill for the sake of maintaining the status quo.

“The amendments represent our progressive values which are in favour of equality without compromising lives and the rights of others,” Farrugia said.

PN MP Robert Cutajar slammed the Commissioner for Children Pauline Miceli for supporting the bill, saying that she was still in time to change her statement, as it is her job to stand up for the right of children and embryos.

Read more: Children’s Commissioner comes out in favour of IVF bill

Miceli had described embryo freezing as a viable practice with a high rate of survival of human embryos, adding that the bill made IVF more accessible and equitable.

Commotion ensued when Deputy Speaker and PN MP Claudette Buttigieg cited tweets by PL MP Rosianne Cutajar in which she expressed her support for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) – a process which could be used in IVF to detect defects before implanting an embryo.

Although Cutajar said that this was her personal opinion, Buttigieg said that it was an indication that the government was seeking to introduce the technique.

Buttigieg also read out a supportive tweet posted by Cutajar on World Down Syndrome Day – implying that it was contradictory to her support for PGD. To this, Cutajar said that there was no link between the two.

Following interjections by Cutajar herself, Parliamentary Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli and PL MP Clayton Bartolo, Buttigieg retracted the comment.