Looking back at 2022 | From Metsola to Bill 28: how politicians got talking on abortion

It was once a taboo subject in the political arena but 2022 saw abortion making it to the parliamentary agenda as Malta was cast in the international spotlight over its draconian anti-abortion law. Maya Dimitrijevic outlines the trajectory of the abortion debate


The tone for the abortion debate in 2022 was set early when Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola signed the Simone Veil Pact just after becoming tEuropean parliament president.

The pact calls on signatories to preserve, promote and strengthen women’s rights at European, national and local level. It explicitly calls for guaranteed access to contraception and abortion.

Metsola’s decision to sign the pact crossed the Rubicon for Maltese anti-abortion activists, who initially welcomed her as the EP’s first “pro-life president”.  

Metsola, the first Maltese national to occupy such a high position within EU institutions, has adopted a standard reply whenever asked about abortion – her position is that of the European parliament that she represents.

Her less than nuanced approach to the ethically thorny subject has put Metsola on somewhat of a collision course with her own party in Malta that remains steadfastly uncompromising on the matter.

Malta is until today the only European country, apart from the Vatican, which has a complete ban on abortion with no exceptions. This is a state of fact the Labour administration wants to change by decriminalising abortion if a woman’s health or life is at risk.

But before fast forwarding to the end of the year, it helps to understand how the debate evolved.

Outside pressure and the election

Soon after Metsola signed the Simone Veil Pact, MEPs held a plenary debate calling for the right to abortion to be included in the EU Charter for Fundamental Human Rights.

Then in February the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović called on Malta to decriminalise abortion. She urged the Maltese authorities to repeal provisions criminalising abortion, develop comprehensive regulations to safeguard women’s access to legal and safe abortion, and improve the availability of sexual and reproductive health services.

The government reacted by saying that at the time, it was currently working to improve reproductive healthcare services, however, disagreed with the interpretation that the right to sexual and reproductive health services included an intrinsic right to abortion.

With Malta heading for a general election in March, none of the two major parties referred to abortion in their manifestos but the subject did crop up during the campaign.

And in stark difference to past occasions, abortion was briefly touched upon without the leaders of the major parties out rightly dismissing or condemning the once taboo subject.

This coincided with a short online campaign launched by the Women’s Rights Foundation in order to raise awareness about difficulties women in Malta encounter due to the strict anti-abortion laws. This online campaign consisted of six animated videos with voice overs of stories sent in by Maltese and Gozitan women.

Police complaints and placards

The newly created Christian political party Abba, led by Ivan Grech Mintoff, filed a police complaint in March demanding criminal investigations into 18 pro-choice activists and organisations.

Nothing came of these investigations and Grech Mintoff filed a second complaint later on in the year, shortly before appearing on an episode of TVM discussion programme Popolin in which the topic being debated was abortion. 

The pro-choice campaign upped the ante in May with a roadside information campaign that saw gynaecologist Isabel Stabile physically assaulted by an anti-abortion activist as she held prochoice placards.

Stabile filed a police report over the incident but the case, which was to be heard in November was postponed with no new date set for the hearing.

The abortion debate returned to the fore with some intensity as the Maltese parliament debated changes to the in-vitro fertilisation law to allow pre-implantation genetic testing on embryos for monogenic disorders.

PGT-M would allow prospective parents undergoing IVF treatment to have their embryos tested for particular hereditary and genetic disorders to ensure that only healthy embryos are transferred to the womb. Defective embryos would have to remain frozen.

Life Network Foundation along with other catholic organisations pushed back, dubbing the IVF amendment as “eugenics”. They claimed embryo selection “does not deliver a ‘healthy baby’ but provides a tool to enable the selection of which baby will live and which baby will be frozen in perpetuity.”

PGT-M was eventually approved by parliament with the Opposition, bar three MPs, voting with the government.

Simmering debate

But the abortion debate came to a head in June. It started with Malta’s newly appointed MP to the Council of Europe, Naomi Cachia, voting in favour of a resolution to protect pro-choice activists from harassment and violence perpetrated by anti-abortion activists in member states.

The resolution which was adopted unanimously, called on member states to take necessary measures to prohibit anti-choice organisations from misrepresenting themselves as neutral, and to investigate and prosecute online and offline hate speech targeting human rights defenders or pro-choice activists, politicians as well as people seeking abortion. 

Shortly after, human rights lawyer and founder of Women’s Rights Foundations Lara Dimitrijevic filed a judicial protest against Health Minister Chris Fearne and Reforms Parliamentary Secretary Rebecca Buttigieg calling for the decriminalisation of abortion. The judicial protest was signed by 188 persons.

Prudente case brings intense scrutiny

Later on that month, abortion was put squarely on the agenda of the administration when an American tourist, Andrea Prudente, suffered a premature rupturing of her waters at 16 weeks of pregnancy. Although the foetus had no chance of survival, doctors at Mater Dei Hospital refused to terminate the pregnany, leaving Prudente at risk of developing sepsis or haemorrhaging.

This put Malta under intense scrutiny from international bodies, exposing the blanket ban on abortion as cruel and inhumane. This case prompted another judicial protest to be filed by 135 doctors calling for changes to Malta’s strict anti-abortion law.

Prudente was airlifted to Spain where she received the life-saving termination. Following the international media frenzy that happened to coincide with the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade, the landmark judgment that made abortion legal at federal level, Prudente and her partner Jay Weeldreyer filed a constitutional case against the Maltese state. The case is ongoing. 

The situation prompted Fearne to seek legal advice on how best to change the law so that doctors are in no way shackled from providing the best care possible to pregnant women.

A MaltaToday survey found that an absolute majority (53.3%) believe that women who have had an abortion should not be sent to prison. This marked a major shift in Maltese attitudes towards abortion although the vast majority remained against. Malta went on to have its second ever pro-choice rally three days before World Safe Abortion Day, calling for the decriminalisation of abortion and asking that it be made part of the national healthcare system.

Shortly after, pro-choice youngsters who were set to debate abortion in Malta’s National Youth Parliament, were bullied into silence after anti-abortion activists published the list of speakers and shared it in anti-abortion groups on social media.

This whittled the list of pro-choice speakers down to just 11 as opposed to the original 27 that were meant to participate.

Roll forward to November and the aftermath of the Prudente case saw government put forward a Bill to amend the Criminal Code, decriminalising abortion of a woman’s life or health is in danger.

Bill 28 was tabled in parliament by Health Minister Chris Fearne and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard with the Second Reading concluding in December. The Opposition has said it will oppose the Bill at all parliamentary stages, insisting that the reference to ‘health’ be removed.

This Bill was approved at Second Reading stage with all government MPs voting in favour and is now expected to be debated at committee stage, where government is expected to present tweaks to clarify certain matters.

Bill 28 prompted heavy backlash from anti-abortion activists, the church as well as the Opposition. Thousands marched in Valletta to voice their anger over the legal amendment, including president emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, River of Love pastor Gordon Manche, Nationalist MPs including leader Bernard Grech.

Protesters called for the proposed Bill to be amended to “put everyone’s mind at rest and protect professionals that work to protect pregnant women but also take care of the baby in the womb.”

Petitions and counter-petitions

More than 80 academics came out against the proposed Bill, suggesting instead wording that excludes health as an exception and proposing the setting up of a regulatory system whereby the decision to terminate is a collective one involving a minimum of three specialists.

They also called for a register to be held by the Superintendent of Public Health where such terminations could be documented. The academics also asked that the rights of conscientious objectors in the medical profession be safeguarded.

Pro-choice activists reacted to the anti-abortion stand, by putting forward their own position paper, which garnered over 100 signatures. They called for the Bill to be approved without changes.

Labour MEP Cyrus Engerer also collected over 160 signatures from MEPs and MPs from national parliaments in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Robert Abela supporting the government on the proposed amendment.

The parliamentary discussion on Bill 28 will be concluded at the start of the new year and with its comfortable majority government can be sure that it will become an Act of parliament.

Becoming law, however, will require President George Vella’s signature and he has already signalled his objection to the law as presented and will resign if it comes before him.

Vella has said he will wait for the final wording before making any decisions. While 2022 was the year when abortion became a subject of political discussion among MPs – something deemed impossible until a few years ago – it has to be seen whether the new year will start with an aborted presidency as a result.

Whatever the outcome of the parliamentary process, one thing is certain – Malta’s meek step to include very specific exceptions to its draconian anti-abortion law will continue being debated hotly in 2023.