The Malta Independent 19 June 2021, Saturday

Marlene Farrugia’s bill could be aborted at first hurdle

Kevin Schembri Orland Saturday, 15 May 2021, 07:11 Last update: about 2 months ago

The highly controversial bill proposing the decriminalisation of abortion was presented earlier this week, but its first major hurdle could see it not proceeding any further.

On Wednesday, Marlene Farrugia informed Parliament that she was presenting a bill whose aim is “to ensure that no person is discriminated against or criminalised over their healthcare.” She said that the bill will also make it so that no medical professional will be criminalised for medical assistance they provide to others.

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She later explained that the intention behind the move is to decriminalise abortion. In Malta, abortion is illegal in any stage of pregnancy, and some Maltese mothers have had to resort to other means, including going abroad, to abort their unwanted child.

The Clerk of the House, Ray Scicluna, was asked by The Malta Independent to describe parliamentary procedure. “The parliamentary process of a private member’s bill starts off with a First Reading Motion like all other bills. A Notice of a Motion is presented by a backbench MP and Parliament ( government and opposition) are officially informed that said Motion has been presented and entered into the Motion Book.”

At present, Farrugia’s bill is at this stage.

The first hurdle will come when the bill reaches the House Business Committee stage, where a decision is taken on whether to proceed with the moving of the First Reading of the bill in the House. The House Business Committee is made up of three members of the government, two of the opposition, plus the Speaker. Although Farrugia is part of the opposition as an independent MP, she does not have a seat on the committee.

It remains to be seen whether the government and opposition will decide to move Farrugia’s bill forward. And here lies the first hurdle.

If the committee does not put the item on the agenda, it will not reach the further stages in Parliament, and an election i s due sometime next year. If the bill i s not debated by that time, it will lapse. In other words, if Farrugia’s bill is not debated by the end of the l egislature, then it will no l onger be valid. Motions are kept alive through their monthly signing by the MPs who present them, At the end of every legislature there are always a number of motions and bills which are not debated and l apse upon dissolution of Parliament.

It is still not clear if the bill will be able to move past the House Business Committee stage.

The PL has said about the decriminalisation of abortion: “The discussion on a sensitive subject like abortion should take place in society in a mature and free manner, and should not be stifled through a motion like this.” It said it did not want the discussion to be “monopolised by the political parties.” The PL added that “The Prime Minister already expressed his clear view on the subject, meaning that he is against the legalisation of abortion. But he still believes that he needs to carefully follow the discussions taking place in society, the PL said.

The PN, meanwhile, has expressed itself against the idea of decriminalising abortion. Opposition Leader Bernard Grech has said that the Nationalist Party can never be in favour of decriminalising abortion. This does not necessarily mean they would not allow it through to at least the First Reading stage in Parliament, but shows where the PN is at on this issue in general.

Neither of the two parties put the decriminalisation of abortion in their 2017 election manifesto.

If a decision is taken by the House Business Committee to go ahead with the private members bill, the First Reading Motion is put to the vote, and if adopted, the bill is published in the Government Gazzette and will stand on the Parliamentary Agenda for its Second Reading stage.

The Clerk further explained that being a Private Members Bill, the Opposition may decide to discuss the Bill during a Thursday sitting allocated to the Opposition. This procedure is regulated by a Motion of Procedure which states that Private Members’ business shall have precedence over Government business during a Thursday sitting to be convened every alternate period of 3 months. This is highly unlikely, given the PN’s stand on the issue.

The rest of the procedure would be as follows. Discussion during the Second Reading stage would see the principles of the bill debated in Parliament. During such discussions, MPs often take the opportunity to voice their concerns about the measures being proposed in the hope that these will be addressed by the moving of amendments to said bill during the next stage of the bill; the Committee Stage. If the bill makes it through its Second Reading, it is generally referred to a detailed discussion by the Standing Committee for the Consideration of Bills which is made up of 7 Members. During this stage the MPs get to vote on each clause and each amendment.

When the Chair reports to the House that a bill has been passed through its Committee stage with or without amendments, the House gets to vote again on the Third Reading and final stage of the bill. If adopted, the bill is given the President’s assent and is published as an Act of Parliament in the Government Gazzette. There would be another hitch here, given that President George Vella has stated that he will never sign a bill condoning abortion. He said he would have no option but to resign.

 

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