Pro-choice coalition warns against changes to abortion Bill that risk creating barriers to treatment

Voice for Choice says Bill 28 that decriminalises abortion if a woman’s life or health is at risk should pass as is, warning that any other legal obligations placed on doctors will be of no clinical benefit to the patient

Voice for Choice insists that Bill 28 is already the bare minimum and should pass as is
Voice for Choice insists that Bill 28 is already the bare minimum and should pass as is

Suggested changes to the Bill decriminalising abortion if a woman’s life or health is in danger risk putting up barriers to treatment, a pro-choice coalition has warned.

Voice for Choice said it was concerned over the changes being suggested to Bill 28 by the government in the face of public backlash.

“Any additional legal obligations placed on doctors caring for women will have no clinical benefit to patients and will mean more risk being put on patients and more women being harmed,” the coalition said, adding that Bill 28 should pass as is.

Bill 28 was introduced in parliament by the government in a bid to include two very limited exceptions to Malta’s complete ban on abortion. The changes to the Criminal Code will allow the termination of pregnancy in cases where a woman’s life is in danger or her health is at grave risk.

Abortion in all other circumstances will remain illegal and punishable by jail time for both the mother and medical personnel who carry out or assist in the abortion.

Bill 28 is opposed by the Nationalist Party, the church, pro-life organisations and several well-known personalities such as president emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and former TV presenter Peppi Azzopardi. President George Vella is also against the Bill and has intimated that he will not sign it into law and resign.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Robert Abela said government was willing to amend Bill 28 to include provisions that will lower the risk of abuse by those wanting to use the exceptions to perform abortions; and clarify that a foetus that is viable should be birthed.

The changes are intended to allay fears being raised that Bill 28 will be a backdoor to abortion on demand. Abela has insisted the principle of protecting a woman's life and health will not be diluted.

However, the pro-choice coalition said on Monday that Bill 28 was the bare minimum to protect pregnant women and any changes being proposed will weaken it and harm women more.

The coalition said that the proposal to enshrine at law the viability of the foetus could be dangerous to women.

“Viability has two definitions in pregnancies. Firstly, viable can mean the ability for the foetus to survive outside the uterus with the appropriate support, usually considered to refer to foetuses that have developed beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy. However, viable is also used to describe any pregnancy that may lead to a live birth in the future,” the coalition said.

It warned that if the latter interpretation is applied to the new law, it would mean that doctors will be forced to refuse treatment on the grounds that there could be the possibility that the pregnancy could still go to term.

“A woman diagnosed with cancer who just found out she is pregnant would not be allowed an abortion to receive chemotherapy because her pregnancy would still be considered viable, as it could still lead to a delivery,” the coalition said by way of example.

“It seems the driving force behind this change is spin by conservative forces that the government intends to legalise later term abortions. However, this is and will remain illegal. This means the requirement in law is unnecessary, may lead to confusion, and increases risk to women,” it added.

The pro-choice groups also raised concern over government’s idea to explore the possibility of a “structure” to decide on cases when termination of pregnancy should be allowed.

“We reiterate our stance that the person who should decide whether to terminate a risky pregnancy is the doctor caring for the patient, with the consent of their patient. Introducing a requirement for other people to authorise treatment will lead to delays, as has been the experience in other countries, which may cost a woman her life especially in cases of medical emergency out of hours,” the coalition said.

Such a structure will lead to a higher burden of proof before a termination of pregnancy is allowed, which in practice will mean women will have to become more unwell before they are allowed to have treatment. “It may be too late to save that woman’s life or health,” the coalition warned.

The pro-choice coalition is made up of: Doctors for Choice Malta, Aditus, Malta Humanists Association, Moviment Graffitti, Women’s Rights Foundation, Men Against Violence, Parents for Choice, Students for Choice, Integra Foundation, and Young Progressive Beings.