Malta does allow for abortions in cases when the mother’s life is at risk, and news reports this week that only Malta and the Vatican City are the two countries that do not allow for abortions in such circumstances once a new law passes in Ireland, are consequently inaccurate.
Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday, Pierre Mallia, an Associate Professor in Family Medicine, Patients’ Rights and Bioethics at the University of Malta and Ethics Adviser to the Malta Medical Council, explained that doctors observe the principle of double effect in Malta.
According to this principle, if a mother needs to be given treatment and as a result the embryo or foetus is harmed, this is morally right.
He explained that in cases of ectopic pregnancies and cancer, the principle of double effect is strictly observed and the patient and family are consulted when treatment is being given.
The Criminal Code states: Whosoever, by any food, drink, medicine, or by violence, or by any other means whatsoever, shall cause the miscarriage of any woman with child, whether the woman be consenting or not, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from 18 months to three years.”
The same punishment shall be given to any woman who procures her own miscarriage.
Moreover, the Criminal Code specifies: “Any physician, surgeon, obstetrician, or apothecary, who shall have knowingly prescribed or administered the means whereby the miscarriage is procured, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from 18 months to four years, and to perpetual interdiction from the exercise of his profession.”
However, Prof. Mallia explains that while abortion is illegal, in practice, when things take a turn for the worse and a patient’s life is at risk, moral principles are observed.
“Even if we were to have a law on restricted abortion, this can never cater for all [medical] eventualities,” he said.
Prof. Mallia also pointed out that as part of the judiciary’s salaries review, magistrates are attending seminars on particular subjects to ensure consistency in the interpretation of laws and a seminar on ‘End of Life’ is planned.
In practice, Malta is far better off than Ireland where Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who died in October after she was denied an abortion. As a result of that case, a restrictive abortion law has been drawn up for consideration by the Irish parliament. Besides Malta and Ireland, the Vatican City is the only European country that does not have an actual law on life-saving abortion.
While the Irish Bill is historic, it has to be passed through both Houses of Parliament and it does not cover cases concerning rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities.
The draft law, which must still be passed by Parliament, is intended to provide legal clarity to enable doctors to perform abortions when the life of a pregnant mother is at risk.
Dublin also faces pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 2010 that its failure to clarify when an abortion is legal for women whose life is at risk was in breach of human rights.