Labour MPs uncomfortable with watered-down abortion Bill

Abortion is now possible if a woman's life is in danger after unanimous support in parliament for Bill 28 but several Labour MPs were left uncomfortable with the final wording of the law they feel has betrayed the liberals who supported the party over the past years

President George Vella delivering the 'speech from the throne' at the opening of parliament: Some Labour MPs have questioned government's appeasement of the President on the abortion amendment
President George Vella delivering the 'speech from the throne' at the opening of parliament: Some Labour MPs have questioned government's appeasement of the President on the abortion amendment

The Labour Party leadership adopted the road of least resistance on its own abortion proposal, watering down Bill 28 to gain unanimity in parliament. 

But in so doing, Labour MPs were left feeling uncomfortable at what they see as Robert Abela’s capitulation in the face of a conservative backlash. 

Several MPs, granted anonymity to be able to speak about internal matters, have now expressed their discomfort with MaltaToday over the final wording of Bill 28. 

“We set out to protect women’s lives and health in the case of complications that may arise during a pregnancy but ended up ignoring the health aspect while making it harder to have a medical decision on termination by introducing a three-member team into the equation,” an MP told MaltaToday. 

But what appears to be of greater concern is the misplaced insistence by the Prime Minister, Health Minister Chris Fearne and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard that the final version retained the original principles of the Bill. 

“This is simply not the case and it pains me that instead of admitting it, we are insisting that women’s health is also protected; it is not and this contrasts with the very strong defence the Prime Minister and Chris Fearne had put up when Bill 28 was first unveiled and there was backlash over the health aspect,” another MP said. 

When Bill 28 was unveiled last November, it proposed two limited exceptions to the Criminal Code, allowing abortion to take place if a woman’s life or health is in danger. Several months later the wording was changed to allow an abortion if a woman’s life is in ‘immediate danger’ or if her health is in ‘grave jeopardy that may lead to death’. 

The new version was approved unanimously without amendments at committee stage in parliament and at Third Reading stage last week after the Opposition welcomed the changes. The church and pro-life groups also applauded the government. 

But pro-choice activists, who had already considered the original Bill as the bare minimum, were left reeling, describing the now approved law as a “betrayal” of women. 

Government’s U-turn also has its strategic pitfalls, according to a veteran MP. “If the original proposal was good and something we believed in, we should have explained it better and convinced people. As things turned out we ended up pleasing no one; the Opposition claimed victory; pro-life groups claimed they were right all this time; and in the process liberals who have supported the party’s progressive and reformist agenda over the past years felt betrayed. What did the PL gain from this?” 

Another MP was more concerned about the impression government gave that it negotiated the revised wording with President George Vella, who had threatened to resign over the matter. 
“The government was weakened when it was suggested that there had been talks with the President. This is an ugly precedent… since when does the president dictate what laws pass through parliament?” 

This is not a rebellion, a pro-choice MP said, but it has created “a lot of discomfort” on different levels in the Labour backbench. “We wanted to achieve a limited but historic reform and when we finally delivered in parliament on the Third Reading, the key players – Robert Abela and Chris Fearne – were not even there to vote,” he said with an air of disappointment. 

“Whenever the party achieved historic reforms on marriage equality, civil unions, and IVF, we always insisted on declaring our vote to emphasise its importance but not this time. Why?” 

He points his finger at Robert Abela’s style of politics that according to him is characterised by “unexplained U-turns” when faced with pressure. 

Meanwhile, Malta has ‘progressed’ from being the only EU country with a blanket ban on abortion to one with the strictest anti-abortion law irrespective of the new amendment.