WANDA NOWICKA

EVERY SPERM IS SACRED

Gamets more important than people


The current debate on bioethical issues, particularly on in vitro fertilization, began toward the end of 2008. It was initiated by the draft proposal signed by Jarosław Gowin - a member of Opus Dei and the Polish Parliament.

Mr. Gowin, like the Polish bishops, believes that in vitro fertilization is a concealed form of abortion, according to the Catholic Church an equivalent of murder. In Poland, due to the strong political position of the Church, this religious dogma has turned into prevailing ideology that may soon lead to a drastic reduction in the availability of assisted reproductive methods. The final result of this new crusade will show, if Poland retains the remnants of pluralism and democratic, ideological neutrality, or rather takes another step toward the religious state, where laws are based on the political position of the Bishops and instructions from the Vatican.

The Law on the Protection of the Human Genome and the Human Embryo and on the Polish Council for Bioethics, that was drafted by authorization of Prime Minister Tusk, aroused great controversy, even in the conservative club of the ruling "Civic Platform". It also gave rise to numerous protests and social initiatives.

Under the new law, the freezing of embryos would be banned and in vitro fertilization would be available only to married couples. The bill allows the creation of only two embryos to be implanted at the same time. The gametes used to create the embryo would come only from the spouse participating in the procedure - it excludes the possibility of collecting semen and/or female reproductive cells from third parties. The bill also envisages the legal protection of embryos a ban on trade and other gratuitous transfer of embryos and gametes, as well as a ban on pre-implantation diagnosis and embryo selection. Embryos, that are not implanted are to be earmarked for adoption.

The outrage caused by the bill prompted The Parliamentary Club of Civic Platform to appoint a panel of experts to prepare a new, more liberal draft that would become a basis for negotiations to adopt a joint proposal. The new draft allows the creation of supernumerary embryos, their freezing and selection before implantation. In vitro will be also be available to common-law couples.

Ultimately, The Civic Platform failed to agree a single project because of the huge polarization of positions on this issue. Hence, an unprecedented situation occurred, where one Parliamentary club has proposed two bills on the same issue.

Yet another draft law has been introduced by the ultra-conservative "Law and Justice" Party. This draft prohibits the creation of a human embryo outside the body of a woman, and provides for a "rescue program" for frozen embryos that are to be implanted into the wombs of their biological mothers, or - if it proves impossible - be earmarked for adoption. Restrictive, religiously motivated draft proposals sparked numerous protests and civil initiatives. Social organizations, especially women's NGOs and associations of people affected by infertility problems jointly launched numerous protest campaigns, including picketing the parliament. They set up the Social Team for the Preparation of the Draft Civil Law on IVF, which prepared a liberal draft submitted to the Parliament at the end of July 2009.

The draft ensures full access to IVF, as well as the safety and quality of this method of fertilization. It allows creation and freezing of embryos, pre-implantation diagnosis and provides for the licensing and supervision of IVF clinics. It aims at adjusting the Polish law in the field of genetics to EU requirements. The draft provides for the reimbursement of infertility treatment from public funds. It is the only legislative proposal that could improve the current situation as regards the treatment of infertility: it ensures access to modern, validated methods of medically assisted procreation and ensures safety, efficiency and quality of these methods. It does not discriminate against people on the basis of their marital status, age or sexual orientation.

Infertility is a disease

Bioethical issues may and should be discussed. Assisted reproduction must be regulated by law so that it would meet the highest medical standards and respect the rights and freedoms of individuals and couples. We need a serious debate about the issue of infertility as a social problem that is increasingly widespread in the modern world. In light of the declining birth rate, increasing life expectancy and decreasing fertility, the Polish government should conduct a policy that allows couples to have offspring. It also needs to determine the standards to be met by clinics providing infertility treatment to ensure that their services are of the highest quality and to protect them from abuse. The ruling Civic Platform, however, does not seriously address the problem. Instead, it contributes to the further stigmatization of infertile couples who are often accused of being selfish and immoral, if they seek to have their own child.

Polish women as guinea pigs

The draft legislation proposed by Jarosław Gowin is dangerous, incoherent and badly written. If it enters into force, the government will gain enormous power over citizens, for example by influencing their lifestyles, decisions about marriage and the possession of children. For Gowin, in vitro fertilization is used to kill, and do not bring new life. He is not interested in helping couples to solve their medical and ethical problems, only to protect the embryo. Based on these assumptions, he has created a draft law on the prohibition and control. Each and every one of if its provisions on assisted reproduction is incompatible with current medical knowledge and standards adopted around the world. If adopted, the draft will result in drastic reduction in the number of children born from assisted reproductive techniques, for this must be the result of the ban on freezing embryos. The draft allows for freezing ova, but this method is still at the experimental stage. Why are Polish women to be guinea pigs? The world authorities in this field hold it incompatible with the current state of scientific knowledge, to advise patients that freezing ova is a viable alternative to freezing embryos. The low efficiency of this method is confirmed by the fact that so far, only 260 children have been born from frozen ova.

Entirely unacceptable is also the ban on the operation of sperm and oocytes banks - institutions that have existed in the world for many years. Depositing sperm and ova in the bank is recommended in nearly all countries in the case of cancer, before radio or chemotherapy and the removal of testes or ovaries.

Human rights violations

Embryo-centrism of the project has been reflected in the creation of extremely bureaucratized controlling machinery, i.e. the Office of Biomedicine and Biomedical Central Registry, which would decide the fate of every Polish embryo and gamete. A woman will not be able to decide the fate of her ovum. She may donate a kidney, but will not be allowed to give an egg to another woman. Decisions to implant the embryos to another woman will be taken by the court after verifying the qualifications of applicants and personal attitudes of parents. The court with an assistance of legal guardian and another unspecified "specialist agency" will check the appropriate parental attitude of people who have no children.

Incidentally, through the back door, Gowin tries to tighten abortion rules, and de facto introduce a total ban on abortion, as this must be a final consequence of releasing the doctors refusing to perform an abortion on grounds of conscience from the obligation to direct the woman to another medical facility, where she could get an abortion. The same result would follow from depriving women who are unlawfully refused abortion of the right to seek damages thus closing the road for women wishing to follow the footsteps of Alicja Tysiąc and other Polish women who successfully complained to the European Court of Human Rights. As a result of this law, the woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape, will have to give birth, because no physician will perform abortion on her and no court will protect her rights. Much seems to indicate that Gowin's proposal has the best chance in the parliament, as a "fruit of compromise". Moreover, despite appearances, it can count on the support of the Church. Although at present, the Bishops seem quite ambivalent about it - in accordance with Lech Wałęsa's expression "to be for and even against" - but one can see clearly that they will support this legislative draft, at least for pragmatic reasons. That is why they encouraged fundamentalist Catholics to submit proposals for a total ban of in vitro, as at their background, the extremely restrictive Gowin's bill seems to be a compromise, having a real chance to be passed.

Gowin remains calm. Each new initiative strengthens the position of his purportedly compromise proposal. He counted the votes in favour and believes that his draft bill will go through Parliament as a political compromise, as other bills will not be supported by the parliamentary majority. His belief in success is based on many years of experience with Polish anti-abortion law. "If we had been able to reach a compromise on abortion, which has been much more controversial, I do not understand why, we would not be able to succeed this time" - he said in an interview. The compromise he has in mind is to be reached between the ruling right-wing coalition and the Church - without the interested parties, that is the citizens. The views of the majority of society mean nothing to him. At present, more than 60% of the population are in favour of in vitro fertilization. Gowin is sure that with time, as with abortion, support for in vitro will fall. I am afraid he might be right. It would be better if legislative process concerning in vitro fertilization stopped. Bad law is worse than no law at all.


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