Robert Abela on abortion exception: ‘We did not want to leave doctors and women in limbo’

Parliament continues to discuss a legal amendment that would allow a pregnancy to be terminated if a woman’s life or health is in danger

Jay Weeldreyer and Andrea Prudente at Mater Dei Hospital: Prudente started miscarrying and was told her pregnancy was not viable but doctors refused to terminate it because of Malta's strict anti-abortion regime
Jay Weeldreyer and Andrea Prudente at Mater Dei Hospital: Prudente started miscarrying and was told her pregnancy was not viable but doctors refused to terminate it because of Malta's strict anti-abortion regime

Government received clear legal advice that Malta’s anti-abortion regime allows no room for exceptions, leaving doctors open to criminal action if they intervened to save a woman’s life.

It was this advice by the State Advocate that prompted government to propose giving legal protection to doctors and women if a pregnancy is terminated to safeguard the woman’s life or health.

Prime Minister Robert Abela said in parliament on Tuesday that the long-standing medical practice adopted over the years to intervene when a woman’s life was at risk enjoyed no legal protection.

“We could have comfortably done nothing and left doctors to their own devices but our conscience did not let us, more so when we had legal advice in black and white that doctors and women enjoyed no legal protection,” Abela said, defending the proposed amendment. “We do not want to leave doctors and women in limbo.”

He was speaking on Tuesday during the Second Reading of the Bill proposed by government to allow abortion if a woman’s life or health is at risk. The debate started on Monday with Health Minister Chris Fearne outlining the reasons for the proposed change to include exceptions to Malta’s strict anti-abortion law. The Opposition has said it will vote against the Bill.

Abela made it clear that abortion was not being legalised and insisted the guiding principle should remain to try and safeguard the woman’s life and health as well as the baby’s.

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

Making reference to the Andrea Prudente case, the Prime Minister said the woman had serious medical complications and Maltese doctors knew her pregnancy was not viable.

“They knew that they could only intervene if her life was at risk and this happened because the law did not give them legal certainty,” Abela said. “We cannot allow a situation where doctors put a woman’s life at risk.”

The Prime Minister said the fact that there have been no criminal cases against women or doctors did not mean this could not be the case in the future.

“It never happened but it is not far-fetched. If a prospective father does not agree with the medical intervention that saves his partner’s life but leads to the termination of the pregnancy, he can file a criminal complaint with the police and the Attorney General will have to proceed criminally against the woman and the doctors because the law offers no protection,” Abela said.

He insisted the amendment was uniquely intended to give peace of mind to women and doctors when grave medical complication arise during a pregnancy.

Indiscriminate killing of babies

Earlier, Adrian Delia said the legal change to Malta’s anti-abortion regime proposed by government will lead to the “indiscriminate killing of our babies”.

In a passionate defence of the unborn child, the former Nationalist Party leader was on the verge of ridiculing Andrea Prudente, the American tourist who kick-started this very debate on abortion.

PN MP Adrian Delia
PN MP Adrian Delia

Prudente started miscarrying while on holiday in Malta but doctors refused to terminate the unviable pregnancy because the foetus still had a heartbeat.

“After 200 years of laws protecting doctors, women and the unborn child, we are now making a made-to-measure law because an American tourist who travelled from the west coast complained because Maltese doctors inserted tubes into her body,” Delia said.

Adrian Delia insisted the proposed law was introducing abortion but government did not have the moral honesty to say so clearly.

“We need legal clarity but we do not need this law that introduces abortion because until now doctors have been saving lives… no law should stop us from saving a life, but no law should allow us to kill lives,” Delia said.

He added that never was a doctor found guilty of an abortion because they helped to save a woman’s life. Delia said the amendment does not specify what type of medical intervention could lead to termination of a pregnancy.

“The proposal means that every reason that effects a woman’s life is reason enough to terminate the life of an unborn child,” Delia insisted.

He then implied that the law proposed by government went against the right to life protected by the Constitution.

“We are deciding and taking upon ourselves the divine power to end a person’s life… this is what we are talking about,” Delia said.

Spiteri warns Malta risks going down UK route

In another intervention, PN MP Stephen Spiteri warned that Malta risked ending up like the UK where abortion is allowed on health grounds but which over the years was given a wide interpretation.

“We want a strong law that protects a pregnant woman and professionals but also the unborn child but if we are not careful we will end up in a situation where abortion is normalised like happened in the UK,” Spiteri said.

PN health spokesperson Stephen Spiteri
PN health spokesperson Stephen Spiteri

He added that Malta risked ending up with having abortion on demand, especially when mental health is not being qualified. The PN health spokesperson said 58% of abortion cases in the UK listed mental health problems as the reason for termination.

“We need to prevent such a situation from happening. Do we want to sacrifice the unborn child if with holistic mental healthcare we can save both the child and the mother? Let us remove any doubts from this proposed law,” Spiteri said, adding the biggest problem of the proposed amendment was that the health conditions were not specified.

PN MP Mark Anthony Sammut accused government MPs of making contradictory statements on the aims of the law. He insisted the Opposition is unanimous and clear on its stand.

“If a woman’s life is in clear danger, termination of a pregnancy is acceptable and should be defended at law,” Sammut said, insisting that government’s proposal went much further than this.

He added that the Bill proposed by government makes no difference at what stage the pregnancy is. “This proposal makes no distinction between a stage where the foetus is not viable outside the womb and a later term pregnancy where the unborn baby can have a chance to survive.”

READ ALSO: Over 100 MEPs support Maltese government abortion amendments

No walk in the park

From the government benches, Malcolm Paul Agius Galea referred to the Prudente case, insisting that he had no doubt that doctors were doing all they could to safeguard her life.

Labour MP Malcolm Paul Agius Galea
Labour MP Malcolm Paul Agius Galea

“If she arrived at a point where her life was at risk they would have intervened, but she would have asked us why we allowed her to arrive at the doors of death to intervene,” Agius Galea said.

He said making such decisions was no walk in the park for doctors. “As a doctor, what would I tell a father seeing his daughter approaching the point where she is risking her life because the law does not allow me to intervene? This proposed law will allow doctors to take the decision to intervene to save a life before the situation deteriorates further.”

Agius Galea said although Malta never had a case where a woman died or a doctor ended up being charged for saving a woman, but there were no guarantees this will always be the case.

He agreed that standard operating procedures used by doctors to help them making such crucial decisions should be discussed by parliament’s health committee.

Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar
Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar

Labour MPs Rosianne Cutajar and Glenn Bedingfield said Prudente’s case was not unique and many other women passed through the same ordeal but did not end up in the media.

Cutajar said existing legislation on abortion was 168 years old and the time had come for Malta to adjourn its laws.

“I will fight in favour of women’s basic rights because what happened to Andrea must not happen again. This is a simple change to the law that allows the termination of a pregnancy to happen if a woman’s health is at risk. Without termination, we will be condemning that woman to death. Is this what the Opposition wants?”