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Speech: Flavell - Assisted Reproductive Technology

Human Assisted Reproductive Technology (Storage) Amendment Bill
Te Ururoa Flavell, MP for Waiariki
Tuesday 8 December 2009; 8pm

One of the iconic items in the photographic archive of Aotearoa is a picture of The Beatles wearing the traditional symbol of fertility around their necks—some people might not know that. That same symbol, which is at the key of the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology (Storage) Bill, was routinely distributed to passengers flying on our national airline during the 1960s and 1970s—some members might remember that. I am talking about the heitiki, our traditional symbol of fertility and childbirth. Heitiki represents our whakapapa back to Tiki, who was the first human. They also represent Hine Te Iwaiwa, one of our tupuna associated with fertility, childbearing, and birthing.

Another theory is that the heitiki represents the unborn embryo, particularly of children who are stillborn. In our tribal histories we have evidence of previously barren women who were said to have conceived after receiving the gift of heitiki by their husbands or other relations. I refer to our recognised stories and symbols in thinking about this bill because I want to make it known that the issues of infertility, miscarriage, and abortions are not the sole preserve of the 21st century preoccupation. In the late 1700s, James Cook saw mostly men wearing tiki, but there have also been accounts from the late 1800s of women wearing tiki, particularly during pregnancy and childbirth.

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In the old days there were a range of creative solutions to respond to the crisis of childlessness and infertility other than the storage of in-vitro gametes or in-vitro embryos. Childless couples were often supported by the gifting of children. We might call these children whāngai in Te Ao Māori. Whāngai in a literal sense means to feed.

In contemporary times we might think of whāngai children as feeding a whakapapa line, an ancestral line, or a genealogical link. The sharing of children as an alternative to infertility is also a situation in which the whakapapa line of a whānau would be nourished. It is a very interesting contrast to the European term of adoption, which historically severs ties from one family line creating the legal fiction of two new adoptive parents with no association to the birth parents. How, then, do these varying cultural concepts apply to this amendment, which allows for fertility clinics to comply with the law and not have to destroy stored gametes and embryos?

The key concept for us is about the integrity of whakapapa and the vital need for control and for protection. Māori engagement with the human reproductive assisted technology is potentially one of the most sensitive and controversial areas of debate within our communities. We are, of course, aware of the crisis issues of infertility amongst our women. Current statistics reveal that the chlamydia rate for Māori is twice that of non-Māori. It also reveals that the gonorrhoea rate for Māori is three times that of non-Māori. Every commentator in the public arena likes to broadcast the issues evident around teenage fertility rates for young Māori women, but when it comes to infertility, there appears to be an uneasy silence.

Why is it that the chronic issues around sexually transmitted infections are not for debate in this House? Or debate on marae? On in public hui? With sexually transmitted infection rates at epidemic levels for rangatahi Māori there is a very serious threat posed for our population growth.

The Māori Party has a considerable sense of sadness that we even have bills like this in front of the House. The issues around fertility and about reproduction are absolutely central for whānau ora and for the health of future generations.

Our sadness is that we do not believe there has been enough opportunity for Māori to debate the tikanga of the circumstances around human reproductive assisted technology. We want to see whānau ownership, collective sharing and responsibility as fundamental in the debate around whakapapa. We want to hear Māori voices in the literature and in the policy design.

Along with that an interesting point was raised by Marewa Glover and Benedicta Rousseu in the research report entitled Your Child is Your Whakapapa In that research a key theme was the sense of survival in a collective sense; survival through the maintenance of whakapapa. It was rare in the discussions around assisted human reproductive technologies for the mechanics of particular technological interventions to be under discussion.

The prevailing focus was about the very essence of human life and relationships—he tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata—and within that, the emphasis was on the uniqueness of Māori identity.

But there is another powerful theme underpinning any discussion of human in vitro gametes and embryos, and that is the spiritual context of the process of reproduction. Members of the House will be aware that in te reo Māori we can have a very special way of talking about these issues. In terms of the process of abortion or miscarriage, we may refer to “āhua kahukahu”, the wairua or spirit within the embryo. Another way of describing this is the unripened seed of a human child.

In the old days these embryos would have been taken and placed in the wall of the whare wānanga to protect the knowledge, the mātauranga, of the house and to encourage the diligence of the students. There are many other accounts such as this, but an essential part of the understanding is that the spirit of the embryo, the unripened seed, is seen as very, very significant.

For many of us, when we consider the storage of human embryos and fertility clinics there is a sense of awkwardness and of discomfort. That discomfort, that sense of something not being quite right, is the anxiety about the aspects of tikanga, of custom. We worry about the mana of the process, the wairua of the gametes, and the authority of the whānau. We are nervous that the tikanga of gifting and sharing of whakapapa brings with it certain expectations associated with the passing over of a life force. Within this process, we would naturally expect a level of accountability and responsibility on the part of all of those involved to accept the commitment to whānau.

We would want to scrutinise the records to ensure they are protected and that the crucial identity of whānau is preserved. These issues are fundamental to the natural law of whānau. Dr Mārewa Glover describes this law as facilitating the rangatiratanga of whānau over their whakapapa material. This means it should be up to the people from which the embryo of the in vitro gametes and embryos came from to decide how long they should be stored for and what they should be used for, including what happens in the event of their death.

Such vital issues of survival should not be left to the realms of an ethics committee to decide. Te Puāwai Tapu, an organisation dedicated to the protection of Māori sexual and reproductive health, also recommends that these elements of ownership and control should be apparent at the every stage throughout the process. It suggests that tikanga must be applied at all stages, from the decision to enter into the process of fertility treatment to the completion and return of āhua kahukahu, the unripened seed. Throughout these stages, Māori partnership in decisions and actions must be paramount. It is about investing in the cultural integrity of whakapapa and protecting knowledge and identity.

I cannot say that anyone in the Māori Party is at ease with the discussions around assisted reproductive technology, but we would be even more uneasy if these discussions went on without Māori being engaged in a real way. Having a few Māori on a committee or writing submissions is simply not enough.

We will support this bill with considerable caution to enable the discussions to proceed at select committee. We cannot give any great assurance of our support after that. However, it is simply, purely, and appropriately the right of Māori to tell us what our subsequent decision should be. Therefore, we will wait to see how the discussion goes. Kia ora tātau.


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