The Malta Independent 26 May 2024, Sunday
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The progress of life

Sunday, 27 May 2018, 07:27 Last update: about 7 years ago

Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante wonders whether all the right questions are being asked in the country’s IVF debate

The 'progressive' and yet ever so divided Malta is debating whether happy couples should have maximum chances to give life to offspring. The debate also questions when a chemical process is to enjoy the moral or legal recognition of a "human".

The authors of the book "The Digital Ape", Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson, state that despite our claims to sophistication, we remain a fundamentally ape-ish species. Apparently, we share 96 per cent of our genes with our nearest relative, the chimpanzee. Surprisingly (or not?), the authors also note that we also share 70 per cent with a packet of fish fingers.


The beginnings of life will always be in question, so going back a few billion years may help us understand the concept of life.

Apparently, by some random turn of events, chemicals roaming about in what is referred to as the Primordial Soup, came together to form a living cell - the bacterium. Nature would have it that the creation of the living cell somehow gained the ability to replicate its complete set of chromosomes, splitting into identical cells within minutes. 

The important and indisputable fact is that the replication of cells is a fallible system and we were created imperfectly. Mutations of the chromosomes of the cells led to some daughter cells being incompatible with life, others being given an added advantage in terms of their relationship with the environment, such as the formation of a cell wall which prevented them from becoming dehydrated in such an arid atmosphere. These bacteria continued to replicate and accumulate all these mutations which eventually led to the evolution of every living thing we came to know about - from plants to animals to humans - a process which took over four billion years.

We consider ourselves more evolved than these cells but the truth is that bacteria still account for the largest biomass on Earth.

A shift from asexual to sexual reproduction is one of the ways that drove the evolutionary pathway for complex multicellular organisms such as ourselves. Each one of us is made up of individual cells - roughly 37 trillion cells of them. Before we start to feel superior, it is best we know that there are an additional 40 trillion bacterial cells roaming somewhere in there.

Obviously, during the vigorous love-making process things can go wrong. We may not be able to produce the cell which is able to unite with another of the opposite sex. Then there are other types of problems such as fertilization not taking place, or it taking place with an over-tired sperm. Even then, implantation might not occur or the foetus fails to thrive. Single parents and same sex couples obviously have another kind of problem. These are just a few of the various biological and social problems that are common with the process of creating the embryo, that rudimentary stage where potential life is in development.

The critical four  per cent that distinguishes humans from chimpanzees is what makes us the only one of the 8.7 million earthly species to know how to sculpt the planet with our own tools. As John Thornhill of the Financial Times aptly put it when questioning whether general technological advancements are a miracle or a monster: "Our uniqueness among other species gives us the opportunity to shape our future as never before, but we will require augmented wisdom to make sensible choices about how far we modify our bodies and minds."

So enter IVF, the process of fertilization by extracting eggs, retrieving a sperm sample, and then manually combining an egg and sperm in a laboratory dish. The embryo(s) is then transferred to the uterus. There are other forms but basically, IVF assists in cases of explained and unexplained infertility. When IVF was first introduced in Malta, anyone could take as many cycles as they liked, using as many embryos as they felt like. In 2012, new legislation brought about some restrictions to this; allowing only two eggs to be fertilised or three in super exceptional cases. These were to be used only by the parents themselves. Back then, it was only possible to freeze the uniting cells (known as gametes) but not the embryos. Hence, embryos (the potential beginning of life) could not be put "on hold" unless the mother was in danger of losing her life or becoming infertile as in the case of cancer.

We finally come to the present time where a new legislation is being proposed. Should the new Bill pass, same sex couples and single women can have a go at assisted reproduction using either donated gametes or embryos which were frozen or unfrozen. Additionally, the Bill allows for a maximum of three eggs to be fertilised during the first cycle and five embryos for their second, with any extra ones being frozen for further use or being automatically given up for adoption anonymously after the woman turns 43, which some may rightly view as somewhat discriminatory.

The current controversy seems to hang on the risk of embryo death through freezing; and also whether it is morally correct for women to concede their embryos to other persons. If so, what is the alternative to the latter, discarding them? If this is an issue, what about the ethical implication that comes with abortion? Where is the line drawn in favour of pro-life?  

Another controversy is whether it is ethically correct for the embryos [or their offspring] to not know anything about their biological parents, which would be the case when using sperm banks and the like. If this is an issue, then is it morally acceptable for parents to adopt orphans from another country if they have no solid information about that child's parents or genetic inheritance? Should they only love a child who has complete family records? Moreover, is it sound to let childless couples remain childless? Should IVF and pro-life values become a case of two weights and two measures?

There is no doubt that these dilemmas deserve a proper debate but perhaps it would be more productive for Malta to also discuss whether the complete set of genes formed in an embryo should be screened to detect abnormalities; say the extra chromosome in Down's syndrome which limits the child's enjoyment of life. While these forms of eugenics are considered by some of us as playing god, isn't it also in our best interest to keep on evolving?

If the expansion of thoughts on this topic is not already exhausting, and if the macro view of our purpose on this planet is to be taken seriously, there is in fact yet another angle to consider; Because we are smarter than chimpanzees, Malta could also go one step further by introducing new family planning courses and better sex education, teaching couples to choose the right stage in their lives to have children and ensuring they have properly mastered their parenting skills. They would also be prepared for the financial implications of bringing up a child. Many children are born in difficult social environments, not merely financial, and such bad timings are often not conducive to a healthy upbringing. Should parents ignore all common sense that comes with family planning and believe instead that "God will always provide" in whatever the circumstance? Is it sound to have children born with predictable hardships?

Expanding the macro view even further, it is worth noting that a recent groundbreaking new assessment of all life on the planet, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reveals that humankind, consisting of 7.6 billion people, is simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life. It reveals that the humans form just 0.01 per cent of all life but have destroyed 83 per cent of wild mammals. Therefore, should we not be taking a hard look at the quality of the upbringing of our children and question whether we are able to educate them in a healthy environment, one away from greed, selfishness and corruption, but one that is harmonious towards other humans and forms of life? Or do we denounce our responsibilities once we have managed to feed our children and provide them with some sort of 'education'?

Perhaps Malta can be truly progressive by considering more multi-faceted angles to this sensitive topic and focusing fundamentally on the rights of children who are not soft toys for parents to play with. They deserve to be brought up in far better environments than the present. Surely this argument is more important than the never-ending debate about when two cells become human or trying to establish how many tools can be used to assist nature without conflicting with moral or religious values, especially when these same values are just as fallible as natural fertility itself.



The author wishes to thank Gilbert Tanti for conducting medical research in connection with this article.


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