With Ireland adopting on Friday a controversial law allowing abortion for the first time in limited cases where the mother’s life is at risk, Malta is now the only European country without a life-saving abortion law.
Ireland’s parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly in support of the country’s first Bill on abortion, legalising the practice in exceptional cases where doctors deem the woman’s life to be at risk from her pregnancy, as the predominantly Catholic country took its first legislative step away from an outright ban.
Exhausted legislators applauded Friday’s 127-31 vote, while outside the parliament gates abortion rights activists cheered as they watched the result on their smartphones. It capped a gruelling debate that locked lawmakers in argument from Wednesday morning to 5 am on Thursday and, after a pause for sleep, through until midnight on Friday.
While the decisive outcome was expected, given Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s lopsided parliamentary majority, passage of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill did inflict damage on Kenny’s two-years-old coalition government.
Although abortion is illegal according to Maltese law, the authorities do allow for abortions in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, as in reality doctors observe the principle of “double effect” in Malta.
The principle of double effect means an indirect killing and not a direct one, therefore this is not strictly considered to be abortion.
A story carried by The Malta Independent on Sunday last May quoted 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, who explained that, according to the double effect 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.
When it comes to the subject of abortion in Maltese law, 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 will apply 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.”
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 was in the pipeline.
Irish life-saving abortion law not short of controversy
Catholic conservatives vowed to drive centrist Fine Gael’s party from power for violating its 2011 campaign pledge not to legislate on abortion.
The government drafted the Bill in response to the case last year of a miscarrying woman who died in an Irish hospital from blood poisoning nearly a week after being refused a termination. The death highlighted Ireland’s failure for over two decades to draft abortion legislation in support of a 1992 Supreme Court judgment ruling that life-saving abortions, including for the prevention of suicides, should be legalised in Ireland.
Kenny, meanwhile, expelled five of his 74 MPs from Fine Gael’s parliamentary group for voting against the Bill and said they could not seek re-election as Fine Gael candidates. Strong support for the Bill came from left-wing politicians, including Kenny’s coalition partners in the Labour Party, who favour much easier access to abortion.
Many legislators in the round-the-clock debate expressed hopes, or fears, that passage of the Bill would put Ireland on a slippery slope to granting wider abortion rights, as has already happened in the rest of Europe.
Divisions ran deepest on the Bill’s provisions permitting an abortion for a suicidal woman if a three-doctor panel agreed she would try to kill herself if denied a termination. Anti-abortion activists warned that suicide-faking women and sympathetic doctors would exploit the rule.
But abortion rights lobbyists countered that such cases were rare, and even the most distressed abortion seekers would take the easier option of travelling to England, where abortion has been legal since 1967. Figures released on Thursday showed that nearly 4,000 Irish women travelled there for abortions last year, while many hundreds more have carried out their own at home using miscarriage-inducing pills ordered over the internet.
The epic debate reflected Kenny’s determination to see the Bill passed before parliament closes for its summer recess next week. The marathon has taken its mental toll on MPs, one of whom accidentally pressed the wrong button during a 5 am vote to reject Opposition amendments.
Another legislator, Tom Barry, grabbed a female colleague, Aine Collins, by the hips during a 3 am amendment vote and pulled her on to his lap right in the middle of the debating chamber. Both are Fine Gael MPs from County Cork.
Barry said he had just been kidding around after Collins noted how cold the debating chamber had become. Once the scene became a viral video in Ireland, he issued an apology describing his actions as “disrespectful and inappropriate. ... No excuses, I just shouldn’t have done it”. He later received an official reprimand from his Fine Gael superiors.
Within minutes of the debate resuming on Thursday afternoon, the Speaker was telling both sides to shut up because they were making his sleep-deprived head hurt.
“There’s a lot of tired bodies in this chamber, including myself, and my tolerance level is getting less by the second listening to you lot, shouting and roaring across the chamber,” Sean Barrett said in remarks to the entire 166-member Parliament.
Outside the parliament building, rival protesters maintained a round-the-clock vigil. Police kept them separated, except when one anti-abortion activist flicked Catholic holy water into the ranks of abortion rights protesters, Exorcist-style.
Both sides also shouted occasional insults to each other, although the anti-abortion protesters spent long periods on their knees with rosary beads in hand. At dusk, many lit votive candles. One accidentally set fire to a pro-life poster, but the flames were extinguished with more holy water.
The state of play in the 28-nation European Union:
Austria: Up to three months into a pregnancy or in the event of serious health concerns for the mother or baby.
Belgium: Up to 12 weeks, afterwards in the event of serious health concerns for the mother or baby.
Bulgaria: Twelve weeks, beyond that if the life of the mother is at risk, or for severe foetal abnormalities.
Croatia: Ten weeks, thereafter for medical reasons or in the event of rape.
The Czech Republic: Twelve weeks, after that in the event of serious health concerns for the mother or baby or rape.
Denmark: Twelve weeks. After that the abortion has to be approved by the authorities who take into account exceptional circumstances, such as danger to the mother, rape, incest or suspicion of Down’s Syndrome.
Estonia: Twelve weeks, and beyond that for medical reasons and/or for women younger than 15 or older than 45.
Finland: Twelve weeks. A doctor’s authorisation is necessary but in practice is systematic. Beyond that health and social authorities decide on a case-by-case basis.
France: Twelve weeks, and beyond that for medical reasons.
Germany: Abortion in Germany is permitted in the first 12 weeks on condition of mandatory counselling, during which counsellors will try to dissuade the woman. Afterwards in cases of medical necessity, but not in the event of rape.
Greece: Twelve weeks, beyond that for medical reasons, rape or incest.
Hungary: Twelve weeks and up to 18 weeks if the patient is younger than 18. Later than that for medical or social reasons.
Ireland: Where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother or where an expectant mother is a suicide risk.
Italy: Twelve weeks for medical or social reasons, beyond that for medical reasons only.
Latvia: Twelve weeks (up to 16 in the event of rape) and after that for medical reasons.
Lithuania: Twelve weeks, and beyond that on doctor’s advice for medical reasons.
Luxembourg: Twelve weeks for social and medical reasons or rape, beyond that for medical reasons.
Malta: Abortion is completely banned. Women found to have had an abortion face between 18 months and three years in prison.
Netherlands: Twenty-four weeks, and beyond for medical reasons. The abortion must take place in one of the 17 abortion clinics or 92 hospitals authorised by the government.
Poland: Abortion is allowed in the event of rape, incest, danger to the life of the mother or the irreversible malformation of the foetus, in the first 12 weeks.
Portugal: Ten weeks on request, and up to 16 weeks in the event of rape and 24 weeks if the child will be born with severe malformations.
Romania: Twelve weeks, afterwards for medical reasons.
Slovakia: Twelve weeks and beyond that for medical reasons or rape.
Slovenia: Ten weeks, thereafter for medical reasons.
Spain: Twelve weeks, beyond that for medical reasons.
Sweden: Eighteen weeks, and beyond that on the authorisation of the health and social services, usually for medical reasons.
United Kingdom: Twenty-four weeks, and afterwards for medical reasons. In Northern Ireland, the woman’s health must be at risk.