In-vitro fertilisation (IVF) legislation is being reviewed at inter-ministerial level in the light of EU law and some recent judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Proposals made include introducing the freezing of embryos and permitting surrogate motherhood, while banning commercial surrogacy.
How does one formulate a clear, rational, principled line of thought on both issues? Perhaps a unifying element is sacredness – the sacredness of human life starting with the moment of conception, and the sacredness of the mother’s womb. By ‘sacred’ we mean either a reality sanctified by its relation to God or something held to be of supreme value and inviolable.
Regarding the sacredness of human life, science has clearly established that human life starts at the moment of conception. Precisely then a new, separate human life begins, as yet fully dependent on the mother, but already with a genetic identity different from that of the mother.
So embryo freezing necessarily involves placing a human being not in its mother’s womb, where it naturally belongs, but in ‘lunar’ conditions, lacking warmth in every sense. By contrast, the freezing of the unfertilised ovum, which Malta’s Embryo Protection Act allows, does not involve a human being.
It is true that when embryos are frozen, the adults involved could retrieve them later without the need to go through the treatment cycle again. But to achieve this, the embryo, a human being, will have been sacrificed, sometimes even for years, waiting to be retrieved.
Although scientists are proud of their success in implanting formerly frozen embryos and bringing them to term, there is still a dearth of available knowledge as to the long-term effects on people born this way. This alone raises ethical questions about the freezing of embryos.
Furthermore, where embryos are frozen, many are never claimed by the couple involved and subsequently ‘discarded’. In other words, tiny human beings are not accorded the protection their human dignity calls for, and are effectively killed.
In IVF issues, one may ethically not concentrate exclusively on the adults’ interest in obtaining the best success rate, preferring embryo freezing as best medical practice. This places adults’ concerns squarely above those of the tiny human being conceived, totally disregarding the voiceless embryo.
The other element is the sacredness of the womb. On the proposal to introduce surrogate motherhood, Archbishop Charles Scicluna tweeted: “We respect a woman’s womb as quasi sacred. Let us not turn it into another commodity, whether for free or for money.”
Surrogacy, like every pregnancy, involves a close bonding between the mother who lends/leases her womb and the child she carries. The surrogate mother’s womb is infinitely more than a transient container or a temporary resting place for the child. Apart from legal complications and ethical considerations, there will surely be emotional trauma and psychological suffering for the mother who after delivery has to give up the child with whom she has bonded.
From the child’s viewpoint it is unclear how surrogacy affects the person’s sense of identity. Just as the child’s conception would not have taken place in the parents’ warm embrace, so the months of gestation would mean bonding with a woman who will not bring him/her up. So surrogacy is harmful to the mother and the child, even given the best medical assistance and even if there were no commercialisation at all – a big ‘if’, as reality has shown.
The sacredness of the womb therefore implies, in practice, that the womb that carries the child should, in the interests of both mother and child, only be that of the mother of the child.Believers will easily see the religious sacredness of human life and of the fleshly sanctuary in which it is nurtured for the first few months. Others, however, will also appreciate the inviolability of human life, starting at conception, and why a woman’s womb should be treated as sacred.