Parliament unanimously approves new abortion legal amendment

Abortion on health grounds to be allowed but only if medical complication can lead to woman’s death as government climbs down from previous wider interpretation

Parliament Building (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
Parliament Building (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

Parliament has unanimously approved amendments to criminal code, allowing for abortion procedures to be administered in exceptional cases.

Government’s amendment to Bill 28 allows doctors to terminate a pregnancy if a woman's life is in danger, introducing an exception to Malta's otherwise blanket ban on abortion.

The original Bill 28 was meant to introduce two very limited exceptions to the Criminal Code by which doctors would be allowed to terminate a pregnancy if a woman’s life or health are in danger. But seven months down the line government backtracked on its core principle to protect women’s health, despite the rhetoric saying otherwise.

Doctors will be able to terminate a pregnancy if a woman’s health is in grave jeopardy but only if the medical condition could lead to her death.

The new proposal was unveiled on Friday morning by Health Minister Chris Fearne and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard.

The new Bill saw pro-choice activists expressing their anger at how it will make the situation “even worse”.

Malta is the only EU country to have an outright ban on abortion with no exceptions. A woman who has an abortion and doctors risk prison if convicted. The changes will for the first time introduce exceptions related to the woman’s life and health.

Another significant change in the new amendments is the introduction of foetus viability, which was absent from the original draft. This is defined as “the point in a pregnancy at which the foetus is capable of living outside the uterus according to current medical practices”.

The law will specifically prevent doctors from terminating a pregnancy if current medical practice deems the foetus to be viable. In this case, doctors will first have to deliver the baby before any medical intervention is carried out to treat the woman.

READ ALSO | After abortion U-turn, Labour MPs stick to party line: ‘It’s a historic change’

This responds to concerns raised by anti-abortion activists that the original law could potentially allow late term abortions to take place.

The new amendment also introduces the concept of a medical team that will decide on pregnancy terminations. The medical team would be composed of two gynaecologists or obstetricians, one of who will be the professional to carry out the termination, and a third specialist in the field related to the health issue affecting the woman.

The changes come after several discussions the government had with different stakeholders after the original Bill 28 had been approved at Second Reading stage in parliament last December.

The abortion amendments last year were presented after the case of an American woman who started miscarrying was denied an abortion despite being told her pregnancy was not viable.

Doctors had refused to terminate the pregnancy because of the strict law banning abortion even though the woman risked developing sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition.

Government had argued that doctors were not legally covered to intervene in such cases if the treatment meant terminating the pregnancy.

Only recently, a woman was prosecuted for performing a medical abortion. She pleaded guilty but given the fact that she was living in an abusive relationship and suffered from mental illness, the magistrate handed down a conditional discharge.