[WATCH] Health Minister coy on IVF Bill changes government is ready to accept

On tonight’s Xtra, Chris Fearne insists embyro freezing will increase IVF success rate, while Opposition spokesperson Claudio Grech says surrogacy would turn a woman's body into an object

Chris Fearne and Claudio Grech discussing the proposed IVF law changes on Xtra
Chris Fearne and Claudio Grech discussing the proposed IVF law changes on Xtra

The government is very open for changes to the proposed IVF law amendments, Health Minister Chris Fearne said, highlighting that, as with almost all laws, he thought there would be some changes to the proposals during the third reading of the Bill in Parliament.

Speaking on Xtra today, Fearne, however, said the government was united behind the amendments, and all Labour MPs would be voting in favour of the Bill once the final version is ready.

“The discussion has been going on since at least 2005, with the current IVF law having been passed in 2012. We are now in the second reading stage on the proposed changes to the law, where all MPs have the chance to have their say on the amendments. After this, all clauses will be scrutinised in the third reading, during which is it common that any proposals undergo changes,” Fearne said, without specifying which aspects on the Bill the government was ready to change.

Asked by presenter Saviour Balzan why the Opposition was not happy with the changes, Nationalist Party MP Claudio Grech said the amendments were wrong because they undermined the right to life and did not respect the unborn child.

“The Opposition’s position reflects that of most civil society groups. Everyone is talking about pseudo-liberal rights, but there is not enough attention being given to the unborn child,” Grech underlined, “The point of departure in this case has to be making a law which is in the interest of the child, and safeguards his or her rights.”

Regarding the argument which the government had been making that the IVF law changes had been in its electoral programme, Grech said the Labour Party’s manifesto had used very broad language and made reference to couples suffering from infertility problems, who everybody agreed should be helped.

Fearne, however, insisted the proposed changes were meant to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

“If through the [amended] law, just one couple of the many for whom the current IVF system does not work, manages to have a child, then we would have done something good,” he said, “The most important human right is that to life. We want to protect more embryos and create more life.”

Reacting to a comment by gynaecologist Mark Sant, that the proposed changes will allow for greater chances of a positive outcome for those undergoing IVF, since it would permit the fertilisation of up to three eggs in the first cycle, and up to five in the second - contrary to the current situation, where only two eggs can be fertilised, or three in exceptional circumstances - Grech stressed that the Nationalist Party had never been against IVF and wanted to help infertile couples to a greater degree.

“The rights of the unborn child have to be place foremost, and once that is done, we need to see how to give couples, who cannot have children conventionally, the best chances,” Grech said, “The point here is that unfortunately people going through immense emotional, physical and financial hardship are being used to introduce certain measures, such as surrogacy.”

Surrogacy only used in “extreme cases”

Clearly indicating that the PN was completely against surrogacy - a process through which a woman agrees to carry a pregnancy for another person - Grech said the European Parliament had condemned the practice in 2015, since it could lead to the female body being used as a commodity, and a number of liberal European countries were also moving towards banning it.

“Surrogacy is very rare,” Fearne said, however, “It happens in extreme cases, when, for instance, a woman’s sister agrees to be her surrogate. If that woman does that today, with the law as it is, the woman would be jailed for three years and incur a €15,000 fine.”

“We do not want someone to go to prison for undertaking an act of love,” he said.

“The government made promises to certain lobby groups to introduce surrogacy so as to appease them,” Grech counter-argued, “Surrogacy, in and of itself, regardless of who makes use of it, renders the woman into an object.”

Embryo freezing is “in favour of life”

Turning to the matter of embryo freezing, Fearne argued that a committee appointed by the Nationalist administration had in 2010 recommended the government to allow embryo freezing.

“The concept is already in the 2012 law. We want to extend it,” he said, “With the new law, we will save more embryos. Currently 88% of embryos do not result in a pregnancy, with the new law, 25% will survive and lead to pregnancy, doubling today’s rate. This law is in favour of life.”

Replying to Balzan’s question on what was wrong with using available technology to give couples a better chance of conceiving, Grech said that, invariably, embryo freezing will lead to the creation of a stockpile of embryos, necessitating a choice on which to use and which to leave frozen.

“This will mean that an infertile couple will have to sign a contract to hand over embryos which aren’t used,” he emphasised, “You do not increase the success rate by putting the life of someone without a voice in danger.”

The Opposition was ready to discuss the use of all available technology, as long as there would be no systematic freezing of embryos, Grech said.

“We are not ready to agree that we can choose who is to live and who is to die.”

“In 2005 the late Peter Serracino Inglott, the PN’s principle advisor at the time, said embryo freezing was in itself not something which should be probited,” Fearne retorted, “But now, [Opposition leader] Adrian Delia said that if elected, he would repeal any IVF law changes. So there will be human lives which he will make illegal.”

“Your own [Former Labour Foreign Affairs Minister] George Vella called the IVF Bill a ‘complete travesty’” Grech said, in turn.

President’s appeal “a rarity”

Asked by Balzan regarding President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s recent statement on the matter, Fearne said that he had spoken with the President following her comments, had explained the ongoing parliamentary discussion on the issue, and told her there would also be a consultation on surrogacy.

Fearne did not specify if he knew whether the President would be signing the law when the time came, saying they had not discussed this, and underlining that the gist of their conversation centred on the government’s commitment to having discussions in and outside Parliament on the changes.

Grech, remarking that the President’s appeal had been “a rarity”, said he couldn’t remember a president ever passing any comments during the second reading of a Bill.

“The government says it is undertaking a consultation on surrogacy, but the law's amendments clearly show that the process would be introduced,” he said, touching on the contentious subject once more.

“Surrogacy means a child can end up with up to five mothers,” he stressed, “The government has no mandate to introduce it.”

Government will consider paying for IVF medication

While IVF treatment at Mater Dei Hospital is free for Maltese citizens, compared to the cost of around €15,000-20,000 for treatment abroad, couples in Malta still have to pay around €2,500 for the required medication.

“If there is a surplus, the government should cover those costs as well,” Grech said, prompting Fearne to claim that the government would have no problem in discussing this and possibly putting it into effect.

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