Lithuanian MPs gave in to the pressure of religious groups, passing a new law on assisted reproduction that bans progressive fertility treatment methods and crushes the dreams of thousands of couples across the country.
The long-awaited law on assisted reproduction was meant to help people cover the costs for fertility treatment by making public funding available.
It was seen as the only chance for those who could not afford the services of private fertility clinics to finally access treatment.
The country also had an obligation to regulate the use of assisted reproduction technologies under EU Directive 2004/23/EC, which sets out the standards for the safe use of human tissues and cells. In 2014, the European Commission started an infringement procedure for the state’s failure to do so.
What came out after the Parliament voted, however, was met with shock and disbelief. Not only did the new law fail to make the treatment more accessible for everyone, despite their income or family status, it also effectively banned the currently applied methods of treatment that are employed by private clinics under a more liberal 1999 order by the health minister at the time.
Limits access, bans donors
According to the new law, assisted reproduction is allowed only when infertility cannot be treated in any other way or without the real prospect of success.
It will be accessible to registered partners and married couples only. Since registered partnership is not legalized in Lithuania, the law effectively limits access to married heterosexual couples.
The law provides for artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization (IVF), but explicitly bans the use of gametes from third party donors. That is, the donors of gametes can only be spouses or registered partners. For oncological patients whose reproductive system was affected by chemotherapy or radiotherapy, this takes away their only chance to have children of their own.
Furthermore, the law bans preimplantation genetic diagnosis for the purpose of selecting an embryo unaffected by a disease. This prevents people suffering from genetic diseases from selecting only a healthy embryo and avoiding transmission of the disease, leaving abortion on medical grounds as the only option for an unhealthy foetus.
Bans freezing of embryos
The legislators did not stop here – they also banned freezing of embryos and restricted embryo creation to “the number intended to be implanted into a woman’s uterus at a time.” This number cannot exceed three.
Such provision implies that, for the purposes of “protection of embryos,” all created embryos, which cannot be more than three, must be implanted into a woman‘s uterus, even the lifeless ones.
Apart from being tremendously degrading to women’s dignity, these requirements severely limit the chances of fertilization, increase the possibility of unwanted multiple pregnancies and cause direct harm to women’s health.
Since the embryos cannot be frozen, each time fertilization fails, women would have to undergo physically and psychologically painful hormonal stimulation and chirurgical intervention to produce new gametes.
All this goes against established medical science, the latest developments and best practices in the field, which are based on creating sufficient number of embryos to enable selecting the ones with the most chances of survival. Selected embryos that are not used are stored in case the procedure fails to bring the results so that the woman does not have to undergo painful procedures again.
‘Detrimental to lives and health’
“The flaws of the law on assisted reproduction have no other basis than dogmatic church ‘science’ and are detrimental to the lives and health of Lithuanian patients and the welfare of families and society,” almost 60 universities, clinics, individual doctors, and patient rights organizations claim in a public letter asking the president to veto the law.
“After the flawed law comes into effect, to save the health of their patients, Lithuanian doctors won’t be able to provide assisted reproduction services in Lithuania and will have to recommend going for treatment abroad,” state the petitioners.
In the harsh and critical letter, health and other professionals say the law potentially violates the constitutional prohibition to “harm a human being” – a national legal equivalent of prohibition of inhuman treatment. “The protection of an embryo cannot be made absolute at the expense of a woman’s right to health.”
The petitioners also claim the law discriminates by restricting access to treatment to married couples only, violates patients’ rights to health and accessible and quality health services, and unlawfully infringes their right to private and family life, safeguarded under the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Tired of pressure
“I feel ashamed before the 50,000 families in Lithuania who have been waiting for this law, and are now left disappointed,” said Minister of Health Juras Požela after the Parliament voted.
Asked of the pressure from religious organizations, the minister said: “Yes, there is nothing to hide, many colleagues acknowledged receiving calls from the church representatives who asked not to vote for the science-based draft.”
According to the minister, priests and bishops held meetings with MPs to discuss the voting because “it was important” for them.
Other MPs also acknowledged enormous pressure from faith organizations. “Lately, it’s getting very difficult to legislate,” complained Antanas Matulas, one of the few conservative MPs who voted against the faith-based draft.
“It became the norm that before each voting on a more significant law, MPs’ electronic mail boxes are flooded with hundreds and thousands of letters of the same kind. Threatening letters were also flooding in before the adoption of the law on assisted reproduction,” claimed Matulas.
All is not lost
“If such law had been in effect earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to have my twins,” said Ieva Drėgvienė, chairperson of Blood, an association that unites oncohematological patients, during a protest held in front of the Lithuanian president’s office.
According to Drėgvienė, people who trust in science and medicine must have the right, in consultations with their doctors, to freely choose the most suitable methods of treatment themselves. “It is not for MPs to decide how to treat infertility.”
On July 4, the president vetoed the law, which will now be returned to the Parliament for reconsideration.