Abortion amendment is a step in the right direction

It is impossible for the legislator to anticipate all the grey areas and permutations that may arise. That is why we ultimately believe that abortion should be legalised in the first trimester for all women who have to make this difficult choice

In a sense, it was inevitable that – by proposing amendments which would permit abortion, when the mother’s health is at risk – the government would unleash a furore of controversy. This is, after all, as it should be.

Abortion is by definition a sensitive topic: and any reform of the status quo, is bound to raise perfectly legitimate doubts and questions. Nonetheless, we have to distinguish between genuine concerns (as expressed by the pro-life movement) that this reform may indeed ‘pave the way to on-demand abortion’; and political reactions which have so far been clearly partisan in nature.

At face value, the proposed amendment aims to remove the risk of legal prosecution – of both women and doctors – in cases where “the termination of a pregnancy results from a medical intervention aimed at protecting the health of a pregnant woman suffering from a medical complication, which may put her life at risk or health in grave jeopardy”.

This is certainly a step in the right direction: as such a step would give doctors and women the serenity, in very difficult situations, to take decisions aimed at protecting the health and life of the mother: without any fear of facing prosecution, and even a prison sentence. Moreover, the law would not have served its purpose had it been limited only to cases where the pregnancy poses a direct threat to the life of the mother.

This would have not avoided cases like that of Andrea Prudente: because, in such cases, doctors would still be expected to wait for that specific moment when the mother faces an imminent threat to her life: rather than act immediately, to pre-empt the danger. There are also cases where the mother may not face any imminent danger of death; but could risk permanent disabilities if the pregnancy is not terminated. The risk of permanent disabilities – including blindness – clearly amounts to “grave jeopardy”; and should not be downplayed.

For this reason, the suggestion that the amendment should be limited only to protecting the physical health of the mother, can only be described as retrograde: in a society which has for so long undervalued the importance of mental health. The World Health Organisation’s definition of health is very clear: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. It is more than clear that mental health conditions may place the health of a mother in “grave jeopardy”: especially in situations which may even lead to prolonged depression and even suicide.

Furthermore, the law should not be further diluted by creating additional layers of bureaucracy, through the creation of new supervisory medical boards in which a conservative medical establishment could end up creating new obstacles to mothers seeking a termination. Just as every patient has a right to choose his or her treatment, the same rule should apply in these cases, too.

Otherwise, we could end up with a similar situation experienced by Polish mothers: where the law permits abortions in cases where the health of the mother was in danger; but the state and medical establishment does everything possible to limit this to ‘exceptional circumstances’. We recognise that the new law is limited to cases where the mental and physical health of the mother is in danger; and that abortion in other cases remains illegal and liable to prosecution.

But in such a delicate matter it is impossible for the legislator to anticipate all the grey areas and permutations that may arise. That is why we ultimately believe that abortion should be legalised in the first trimester for all women who have to make this difficult choice. Yet, this can only happen if a government is elected with a mandate to introduce a comprehensive law, on the model of that enacted in most advanced EU countries. And to get there, the pro-choice lobby needs to win over the hearts and minds of the majority.

And while, on a positive note, Prime Minister Robert Abela has clearly suggested an evolution in his own thinking on the topic: from a categorical opposition, to an understanding of the plight of hundreds of women stigmatised for having an abortion, it is disappointing that the Opposition is once again seeking to turn abortion into a political battle-cry, in a bid to restore a semblance of unity and purpose. Ironically, while previous battle cries like democracy in the 1980s and Europe in the early noughties had forged a formidable coalition of liberals and conservatives, the party’s hysterical reaction to the legal amendment may well have a completely different effect; that of further alienating liberals from a party which is not even willing to consider a law safeguarding the health of women, as recommended by international bodies like the World Health Organisation and the Council of Europe.

While the PN has every right to stand up for its principles and values, in this case the party seems determined to impose its archaic vision on a society which is changing fast and which the party cannot even recognise anymore.