Bill 28: Dishonesty and betrayal

No amount of rhetoric or blame-shifting onto the Opposition will change this fact: Fearne, Attard, Buttigieg and the Prime Minister have betrayed women

When Chris Fearne, Jonathan Attard and Rebecca Buttigieg unveiled Bill 28 last year, they provided a glimmer of hope to women.

Bill 28 was intended to amend the Criminal Code and introduce two limited exceptions to Malta’s blanket ban on abortion. The Bill would allow the termination of pregnancy if a woman’s life is at risk, or her health in grave jeopardy.

Fearne, Attard and Buttigieg were reacting to the case of American tourist Andrea Prudente, who was denied an abortion at Mater Dei Hospital despite being told her pregnancy was no longer viable after she suffered from a ruptured membrane.

The amendment did not decriminalise abortion. It only proposed two limited exceptions that concerned the woman’s life (on which there is no opposition) and her health. It was the latter aspect that raised hackles because it would have allowed doctors to intervene and terminate a pregnancy if the woman’s health was being put in grave jeopardy even though her life may not have been at risk.

This meant that in Prudente’s case, doctors would have been able to terminate the non-viable pregnancy without having to wait for her health to reach a stage where death becomes a possibility.

Fearne, Attard and Buttigieg argued that no woman should ever be put in the same situation as Prudente. They were not alone. Prime Minister Robert Abela was at the forefront defending Bill 28 and what it intended to achieve in terms of protecting women’s lives and health. Other Labour MPs boldly argued on the same lines.

But fast-forward seven months and, following several consultation meetings, government came out with a new version of Bill 28 that aborted the health principle championed previously by the Prime Minister, Fearne, Attard and Buttigieg.

The new version of Bill 28 retained the principle of allowing an abortion to take place if the woman’s life is at risk, but wavered on the second principle related to health. In the new version doctors will be able to terminate a pregnancy if a medical complication puts the woman’s health in “grave jeopardy which can lead to death”.

The qualification ‘which can lead to death’ is restrictive.

Gynaecologist Mark Sant, who has been very supportive of the Labour government’s progressive legislation on IVF throughout the years, described the new Bill 28 as “regressive”, insisting it would make no difference in a case like Andrea Prudente’s. Other gynaecologists also argued on the same lines.

Now, government may have had a change of heart on its original stance. U-turns in politics are nothing new. However, given the strong defence of the original Bill, government MPs have a duty to explain why they changed position.

Unfortunately, there was no such explanation; and to add insult to injury, Abela, Fearne, Attard and Buttigieg insisted the new wording still retained the two principles they had originally championed.

This is dishonest and shuts down the glimmer of hope they ignited last year when boldly attempting to change a 160-year-old draconian law.

Politicians do not like being labelled dishonest, or accused of having committed a U-turn. But that is what has happened.

Any pregnant person who suffers from a ruptured membrane, has an unviable pregnancy, and runs the risk of developing a life-threatening blood infection (sepsis) but is not yet in a state where the situation is a threat to life, will be in no better position than Andrea Prudente, with the new version of Bill 28.

No amount of rhetoric or blame-shifting onto the Opposition will change this fact: Fearne, Attard, Buttigieg and the Prime Minister have betrayed women.