The Malta Independent 3 February 2023, Friday
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TMIS Editorial - Abortion law amendment: What will the President do now?

Sunday, 27 November 2022, 10:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

A Bill that will make the termination of a pregnancy legal when the woman’s life is “at risk or her health (is) in grave jeopardy” because of a “medical complication” was presented in Parliament on Monday. 

The Bill was submitted after an American woman, who was in Malta on holiday last summer, was denied a request to end her non-viable pregnancy, a case that was given great attention by the international media and which pushed the couple in question to open legal action against the government.

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Government had said that it would see that the current laws in the country were changed to cater for circumstances similar to what happened to the woman, Andrea Prudente. In presenting the Bill, Health Minister Chris Fearne described government’s intention as being “pro-life”.

The debate on the issue has already started – or continued where it left off the last time the subject of abortion was high on the public agenda. For example, more than 80 academics have signed a position paper pointing out that the way the Bill was presented is not clear enough in determining the instances when the termination of the pregnancy would be legally allowed.

The way government put it, they said, would mean that “abortion will be allowed if a woman is going through serious mental conditions, none of which should ever justify the sacrifice of a baby’s life”. They have suggested that the amendment should make a precise reference to “real and substantial risk of loss of the mother’s life from a physical illness” for the procedure to be legally acceptable.

This position was then endorsed by the Nationalist Party, who said that the academics’ proposal would make it possible for the amendments to the law to be made without introducing abortion. As the government was putting it, the PN said, it was opening the door to abortion. The Labour Party denied this, saying that the amendment simply clarifies the position of doctors and women when there are complications that put the expectant mother’s life at risk.

But there is another side to the story.

The process to enact the proposed amendment will take its time, but it is already pertinent to ask what the President of Malta will do when, once Parliament completes its proceedings, he will be required to sign it for it to become law.

We ask this question given what happened last summer, when Parliament passed what is known as the IVF law, which opened the way to embryo testing, enabling doctors to spot certain conditions before the embryo is implanted in the womb. Vella was evidently against the IVF law, but what happened was that an Acting President, who supports it, was appointed, and when Vella went abroad, the IVF Bill was signed into law. In between, we had weeks of speculation as to what Vella would do, with the President himself repeating over and over again that “the law would be signed”. But eventually he was not the one to sign it; Acting President Frank Bezzina did.

Now we have this new Bill on the table, which aims to make it legal for a pregnancy to be ended when the woman’s life is in danger.

Last year, in the previous legislature, independent MP Marlene Farrugia had presented a private member’s Bill to decriminalise abortion. Asked about this initiative, President George Vella had said that he would rather resign than sign a Bill that, in his words, would authorise murder. He had said that he cannot stop the executive from deciding on an issue, with the blessing of Parliament. But he said he had the liberty to be against a law and will have no problem to resign if he does not agree with what Parliament decides.

There are no half measures, he had said at the time. “You have either killed or not killed… I’m very clear; there are no ifs and buts”.

Vella will now have to face a similar situation when the amendments to the law on abortion will be passed by Parliament. Government has a strong majority in the House, and the Bill will become law with or without the votes from the Opposition benches.

Once the law is passed, doctors and mothers will no longer risk being jailed when a pregnancy is terminated if the woman’s life is at risk. This, in layman’s terms, could be interpreted that abortion will be allowed without fear of prosecution when there is a danger to the woman’s life.

So what will the President do? Will he sign the law? Will he resign? Or will he pass on the buck to the Acting President?

We wait and see.

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