President breaks with tradition and raises abortion concerns during Republic Day address

President George Vella makes brief reference to abortion decriminalisation Bill during Republic Day speech as he breaks with presidential tradition not to intervene in ongoing parliamentary processes

President George Vella delivering his Republic Day address
President George Vella delivering his Republic Day address

President George Vella has expressed hope that ongoing discussions on the decriminalisation of abortion if a woman’s health or life is at risk will address all concerns.

In a brief departure from tradition, Vella made a passing reference to the ongoing parliamentary process involving the Bill put forward by the government during the Republic Day speech at the Palace in Valletta.

“It is not practice for the President to speak on a Bill that is in front of parliament since we have to allow the democratic process to take its course but I feel these are particular circumstances and express hope that ongoing discussions will lead to solutions that address all concerns being raised,” Vella said.

This was the only reference he made to the abortion debate that kicked off when government put forward an amendment to the Criminal Code that would allow a pregnancy to be terminated if a woman’s health or life is at risk.

Vella is understood to have informed government that he will resign if the Bill is approved in parliament and comes before him for signing. Government has said it will tweak the amendment but will retain the principle that a woman’s health and life should be protected.

No formal tweak has yet been put forward and it remains unclear whether any changes will be enough to allay the President’s moral objection to the law. The Opposition has said it will vote against the Bill, objecting to the inclusion of the health aspect, which it claims will open the door to abortion on demand.

The vote on the Second Reading of the Bill will be held on Monday but the committee and Third Reading stages will not happen until the new year when parliament reconvenes after the Christmas recess.

The Constitution says that the President has to sign on an act of parliament as quickly as possible. The President does not have the power to stop a law or send it back to parliament for reconsideration.

Vella’s interjection in the ongoing parliamentary debate, even if just for a brief moment, is not unique. His predecessor Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca had also interjected when parliament was discussing changes to the IVF law in 2018 by calling for an extended consultation process when the Bill was at committee stage.

Coleiro Preca, who had concerns on embryo freezing, eventually signed the law despite her personal moral objections, insisting it was the president’s duty to do so.

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More enforcement, harsher penalties, full justice

Vella used his speech to identify several challenges facing the country, including climate change, environmental degradation, traffic congestion, road and workplace deaths, multiculturalism and judicial delays.

He mentioned by name three people, who died in different circumstances but where justice needs to be done – JeanPaul Sofia, Bernice Cassar and Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Sofia, 20, died recently when the building under construction that he entered into collapsed. His body was recovered almost 17 hours later from beneath the tonnes of rubble. Five other people were injured in the collapse.

Vella called for better monitoring, more enforcement and discipline to avoid abuse as he recalled the memory of all those who died at their place of work.

The President also called for harsher penalties in domestic violence cases, better education and maximum support to victims. He then recalled Cassar’s murder.

“No words of comfort will ever bring back this woman to her children, family and friends but it is our duty that all circumstances that could lead to another woman being killed are not repeated,” Vella said.

Cassar, a mother of two, was murdered by her estranged husband last month amid outrage at police and judicial failures to protect the woman, who was a victim of domestic abuse.

On Caruana Galizia, the President said the country was morally obliged to ensure that the judicial processes are conducted well so that all those involved in her murder are brought to justice.

Two-thirds impasse

Vella also appealed to politicians from both sides of the House to overcome the impasse on the nomination of people for constitutional appointments that require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

There is currently no agreement between government and the Opposition on the appointment of the standards commissioner and no progress can be made unless consensus is reached. The Opposition has rejected government’s nominee, former chief justice Joseph Azzopardi.

Government has put forward legislation to introduce an anti-deadlock mechanism in these circumstances by ensuring that if after two votes the two-thirds majority is not reached, a simple majority will suffice. The Opposition has accused government of resorting to undemocratic moves to overcome the problem.


Vella also dwelt on the issue of multiculturalism and the need for better integration of foreign workers and migrants.

“Are we working enough to integrate better? Some of these foreign workers do not have a place where they can practice their faith. Some do not try to learn our language, because this is also a two-way process. Our future is tied to the fact that our country will become more multicultural and we have to be prepared to benefit from the advantages this can bring about through more education and better preparedness,” Vella said.

He condemned xenophobic, racist and offensive language addressed towards migrants and expressed concern that a survey commissioned by his office had found that only 27% of people felt comfortable with multiculturalism.

After delivering his address, Vella decorated several individuals with the country's highest honours.