The act updates Malta's 2012 Embryo Protection Act, which had restricted access to fertility treatment to heterosexual couples, and outlawed gamete donation and surrogacy.
The country's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in April that the update of IVF laws aimed to 'push forward the concept of equality that favours life' (see BioNews 947).
The new act raises the age limit for women undergoing IVF from 43 to 48. In addition, anyone over 18 can now seek fertility treatment, which will enable single and lesbian women to start families. While the wording of the act is inclusive of gay and single men, in practice the fact that surrogacy remains illegal means they cannot benefit.
The decriminalisation of non-commercial surrogacy was included in earlier drafts of the bill, but it was subsequently removed and will be considered as a separate bill in future.
Gamete donation will be permitted for the first time under the new rules, but it will be tightly regulated. Each donor is only allowed to donate once, and that donation can only be used to create one family.
The new law also permits embryos to be frozen. Previously, only two eggs could be fertilised in an IVF cycle and both had to be transferred to the woman. If more eggs were collected they could be frozen unfertilised. Embryo freezing was permitted only in exceptional circumstances, such as when the prospective mother suffers a serious illness or injury between fertilisation and the planned transfer date.
Under the new law, up to five embryos can be created, of which a maximum of two may be transferred at a time.
However, the Catholic country's prohibition on embryo destruction will remain. Embryo research remains illegal, and even embryos with serious defects may not be discarded.
If more than two embryos are created, they must be frozen and subsequently used to try to establish a pregnancy. If frozen embryos remain once the family is complete, or the woman reaches age 48, the embryos must be made available for 'adoption', so they are not destroyed or left frozen indefinitely.