Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 15 March 2009

IVF regulation? Sounds more like discrimination to me

Why do I get the impression that we, as a nation, are entirely in the hands of a bunch of dilettantes?
OK, let me explain. Last Monday I had a taste of the immense seriousness with which our House of Representatives runs its own internal affairs. That’s right, folks, I am talking about Parliament here – an institution that holds itself in such high esteem, that it is perfectly willing to invest €80 million (of our money) into a brand new edifice for its own exclusive enjoyment... in place of what was once a national treasure enjoyed by one and all.
In any case: on Monday I was called upon to testify before the House’s Privileges Committee. Some of you out there might remember that curious incident in which 20,000 passwords went missing from the central database of Malta’s official IT agency, some time around last September...
No? Well, I can’t say I blame you. The matter was after all never discussed at any depth, let alone resolved in any meaningful way. Certainly the police never made any arrests (presumably because there was no pressure to do so by the Archbishop); and besides, who cares if a few highly sensitive email accounts become accessible to unauthorised third parties for an indeterminate period of time? This, after all, is not a serious matter (unless you happen to be a drug pusher, human trafficker or involved in some other criminal activity, in which case access to national security information may come in kind of handy).
So instead of discussing a grave and potentially catastrophic breach of national security, what did our learned parliamentarians choose to discuss? Why, an article written by yours truly last October, and whether or not I was accurate in my choice of dates.
The short answer, in case you were wondering, is: no, I wasn’t. I was actually off target by a whole year – misinterpreting “September” as referring to “2007” instead of “2008”. Apparently, the entire cross-examination in which this detail emerged is now available for download somewhere on the government’s website. I wish you all joy of the auditory experience. But while you’re busy downloading the audio and conserving it for posterity, kindly note that for all you are aware, the private correspondence of all the country’s main security nexuses – Police, Armed Forces, Customs, Immigration Control, Judiciary, Cabinet, you name it – may similarly have been downloaded at roughly the same time, without any of our Representatives losing too much sleep over it.
Such, I fear, is the seriousness of Malta’s House of Representatives. It would be wise to remember this, when they prevail upon you to approve their annexation of the Theatre Royal site some time in the near future.

All things told, I suppose it is hardly surprising that our Parliament cannot really be trusted to come up with serious legislation on any sensitive or controversial issue.
So when I heard that the Social Affairs Committee was discussing a law aimed at regulating assisted procreation therapy – a matter of extreme importance to thousands of people in this country, who for whatever reason are unable to have children through natural means – I was (to put it mildly) concerned.
My anxiety multiplied exponentially when I overheard the committee’s chairman, Edwin Vassallo, admitting that his only interest involved “the moral and ethical dimension” of this medical issue... and that of course, the only advice or opinion to be sought by Parliament on the matter, came not from scientists or medical professionals involved in the field (these, of course, were completely ignored); but rather, from the dean of the Faculty of Theology, who informed Mr Vassallo that: “Man’s primary intention in IVF was to kill the embryos that remained unutilised...”
Wait, it gets better. For despite clear indications that IVF is impossible without losing human embryos in the process (going by the same logic that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”), the Social Affairs Committee still seems to think it can keep everyone happy with a hotchpotch law intended only to limit the availability of this technology to persons of their choice.
According to Vassallo, IVF is perfectly OK if it meets four conditions... among them, “respect for the dignity of the human being from the very beginning”; and “the protection of marriage and the family.”
Sorry, Edwin, but if you really think that you are only kidding yourself. It is not at all possible to respect the human dignity of all human embryos, while at the same time also permitting a technology in which human embryos are inevitably destroyed. I am afraid there are no two ways about it: you are either going to bow to the Church’s Magisterium and ban IVF altogether, or consent to the wholesale destruction of human lives, and make a public spectacle of your government’s hypocrisy.
Anything more would be a classic case of squaring the circle... and no one, not even a Vassallo, can do that in practice.
Meanwhile, I feel compelled to issue a fair warning to the parliamentary Social Affairs Committee, that any IVF regulatory framework based on the above principles will not only be unworkable in practice (no doubt, part of the whole intention all along).. it will also be ILLEGAL.
Yes, Edwin, you heard right: illegal. This may come as an earth-shattering surprise to the members of the Social Affairs Committee, but... how can I put this? “Protection of marriage” does not actually fall within the remit of IVF legislation; not by any stretch of the imagination whatsoever.
Besides, I don’t know what planet the Social Affairs Committee resides upon, but here on Planet Earth (or at least, the democratic parts thereof) medical services cannot legally be withheld from patients simply because the government thinks they should be married before having children.
There is a word for that sort of thing: it is called “discrimination”, and it is an explicit criminal offence according to both local and international law.
Furthermore, the idea to limit IVF to “couples in stable relationships” (as proposed in 2005) is also in direct violation of Article 25 of the Charter of Human Rights, which grants the right of access to medical care (and which by the way is also entrenched in the Constitution of Malta); in conjunction with Article 2 of the same convention, which establishes that no human rights can be withheld on the basis of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (my emphasis).
For this reason alone, any attempt to limit IVF treatment to a) married couples; b) couples in a “stable relationship”; c) heterosexual couples; d) couples of any kind whatsoever (i.e., not single persons) will immediately be met by legal action in the form of a Constitutional Court case.. if not brought against the government by any human rights organisation, then at least initiated by yours truly.
To this end, I am even willing to divert a small sum of money I had put aside for a much-needed summer holiday, and instead use it to finance a legal challenge to what is obviously going to be a discriminatory piece of legislation by a parliament which seems to think it has a God-given right to legislate on moral affairs. Nor will this be the only court case precipitated by the IVF regulatory framework legislation currently being drawn up; for according to Dr Michael Asciak’s original 2005 draft recommendation, the new law will also specify the precise moment of origin of the human person (with all pertaining rights and privileges) as “pro-nuclear syngamy”.
I won’t bore you with the scientific implications of this entirely arbitrary definition; but suffice it to say that syngamy takes places between 20 and 30 hours AFTER penetration of the ovum.
According to this definition, therefore, there is absolutely no reason under the sun why the morning-after pill (deemed “abortifacent” by the Vatican, and hence – surprise! – also by its satellite, the government of Malta) should remain illegal in this country, as in fact it has been since 2005.
So come June, I will be poring over Malta’s new and unimproved IVF legislation, and if the above definition of human life is still there, you can rest assured that the morning-after pill ban will also face a fresh challenge in court.
This way, who knows? Perhaps some good might come of the current “foetus frenzy” that has gripped the entire nation; perhaps Maltese women might finally gain access to the same availability of adequate contraception that their European equivalents have been enjoying for years.
Either way, looks like it’s going to be a fun summer after all. I just can’t wait...


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