Written by Fr.Richard Nazzareno Farrugia

Reflections on the Embryo Protection Bill

Let it call a spade a spade

What’s in a name? This Shakespearian question crossed my mind as I read the Embryo Protection Bill.

It states that “the objects of this Bill are to regulate the procedure relating to medically assisted procreation and to protect human embryos”. Going through the Bill, however, no reason is provided why human embryos need to be protected.

It’s curious that no reference is made to the dignity of the human person that constitutes the reason and foundation of fundamental human rights. Is the personal dignity of the human embryo so obvious that it is presupposed or is it so unobvious that it is unrecognised?

Thus, I wonder on what grounds does this Embryo Protection Bill safeguard the human embryo.

Is the human embryo a person? Some would retain this to be a philosophical question. However, there isn’t need of much logic and common sense to state that it is scientifically affirmed that, once the ovum is fertilised by the sperm’s nucleus, a continous, self-organised, autonomous and coordinated process begins and this process is called “life”, in this case, the “life” of a human being.

If we talk about the human embryo as a “mass of cells”, this affirmation does not state anything because every living thing is a mass of cells. If we state that it is just a mass of cells, then the proof weighs on the one affirming it since he has no scientific evidence to say the beginning of human life does not coincide with the beginning of the human person who has an inherent dignity.

So if you’re not certain, you shouldn’t act. If someone is driving his car and sees a closed box on the road and suspects that in it there could be a baby he has the obligation not to take any risks, stop the car and first clear his doubt. It wouldn’t be responsible if, in doubt, we risk killing a human being.

Somebody would state that an embryo is not a human person unless it has the ability to exercise its rational capabilities. This line of thought would legitimate discrimination against people who are mentally impaired or suffer from mental disability.

Some international bioethicists do state that embryos and adults suffering from profound dementia or are in a vegetative state are not “moral persons” but just “human beings” and it is the “moral community” that decides their fate.

Last February, two Italian academics wrote on the Journal of Medical Ethics supporting what they termed as “after-birth abortion”. They argued that if there’s nothing wrong in killing a human embryo or foetus before birth, it shouldn’t constitute an ethical problem to kill a human baby in the first days or weeks after birth because the baby isn’t yet a person, that is “able of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her”.

After-birth abortion could not only be justified due to genetic anomalies or diseases but also if the newborn constitutes a financial burden for the mother.

These are worrying affirmations but it is a logical conclusion for those who retain human embryos as mere potential persons but not persons. I thought civilised society had long forsaken the horrendous killing of innocent babies. Are we having a comeback of barbarian atrocities?

If the Embryo Protection Bill really intends to protect the human embryo, the latter should be recognised as a human person with inherent dignity that ought to be acknowledge and respected by all. This recognition seems to be absent in the proposed Bill.

For example, in article 16, the Bill condemns and penalises those who wilfully “destroy” a human embryo. It doesn’t seem to be the case here that “to destroy” is a synonym of “to kill”. A thing can be destroyed but not the physical life of a human being. Destroying something or someone emotionally or spiritually is one thing, killing somebody is another. Does this mean that the Bill considers the human embryo to be “something” and not “someone”, a “thing” and not “a human person”?

Moreover, nowhere in the Bill is in-vitro fertilisation mentioned. The Bill talks about “medically assisted procreation”, which is not defined together with the other keywords explained in article 2. This generic term could include artificial homologous insemination, GIFT (gamete intra fallopian transfer), IVF, ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) and so forth.

I find it difficult to understand why such an important term as “medically assisted procreation” is left without a definition.

Equally interesting – and preoccupying – is article 5 that states that one of the conditions that should be satisfied so that prospective parents may be provided with medically-assisted procreation procedures is that these “do not entail any known undue risk to the health of the woman or the child”. Whereas further on, in article 18(2), it is stated that, among other things, the general practitioner should inform prospective parents about the complications and “all risks involved to both prospective parents and the offspring”.

If by “child” the Bill means “the human embryo”, I don’t see how IVF could be allowed because, for the child, this procedure carries always “known undue” risks.

Scientific literature provides ample and abundant studies on how IVF is a risky procedure. There are studies that clearly show that IVF babies run a higher risk of prematurity, low birth weight and other neonatal problems than babies conceived in a natural way.

This procedure takes place exclusively for the best interest of the wannabe parents and not of the child.

Article 5 seems to be in line with the objective of protecting the embryo but, then, in other articles the Bill seems to allow procedures that entail a known undue risk to the health of the offspring. It is not in the human embryo’s interest to be put into existence and have his life exposed to risk. For the child conceived, IVF is always a procedure that entails a known undue risk to its health.

If this Bill wants to live up to its name it must call things by their name: call the human embryo a person with inherent dignity; penalise those who kill a human embryo and not just destroy him as though he were a mere object or “mass of cells”; retain IVF an “known undue risk” for the health of the child.

It cannot have a “cosmetic name” to please all and then betray or contradict in its contents its very name! If it’s about the protection of the human embryo, then such safeguard should be firmly rooted in the dignity of the human person.

If not, call it anything but not a Embryo Protection Bill.


* This article (image excluded) was published on The Times of Malta (August 11, 2012).