The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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Abortion for health reasons will only be allowed if mother’s life at risk, as per bill amendments

Albert Galea Friday, 23 June 2023, 10:50 Last update: about 9 months ago

Health Minister Chris Fearne has presented changes to the government’s proposed bill to allow abortions to take place when the prospective mother’s life is at risk – changes which he said would put the minds of doctors, mothers, and those who had opposed the initial Bill at rest.

In a press conference held in Parliament on Friday morning, Fearne said that the law today – which he noted goes back 150 years – means that if a pregnant woman were in a situation where she may die and a doctor intervenes to save her life and the baby is lost in the process, then the doctor may face up to four years in prison and the mother up to three years in prison as well.

The State Advocate, Fearne said, had made clear that there is no exception to this law.

Fearne said that since the Second Reading of the Bill, the government had listened to those with genuine concerns about the amendments including those in favour, those against, some who thought that the situation should remain the same, patients, mothers who went through this, and obstetricians themselves – while also keeping the President updated about the discussions.

The latter point is significant, as President George Vella has repeatedly said that he would resign rather than sign a Bill which would introduce abortion in Malta into law, and has also said that he was not happy with the proposal as it stood prior to today.

Fearne said that the principle of the Bill – that of allowing a prospective mother’s life to be saved in the most extreme circumstances, even if it means that the baby will be lost – will remain, but that amendments would be made in order to clarify certain things and strengthen other points to reduce abuses.

The new text which will be discussed in Parliament’s Consideration of Bills committee and tabled in Parliament for the third and final reading was published following the press conference, but Fearne and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard both gave a run-down of the amendments which had been made.

Clarifications on what ‘grave danger’ is

One of the chief concerns on the Bill, Fearne said, was in what the term ‘grave danger’ to a mother’s health meant in a quantifiable sense.

He said that the government had always known and intended for this to refer to circumstances which place the mother’s life in danger.

In order to clarify this, the wording has been changed to say that a pregnancy termination would be permitted by law if “the mother’s health is in grave danger such that it could result in her death.”

This means that an intervention which would result in the termination of a pregnancy may only be made if the woman’s life is in danger.

Another point being clarified is that the termination of a pregnancy in this case may only be done as a last resort, if every other potential medical solution for the issue at hand has been tried and exhausted.

Fearne said that one example which had been brought up by those with concerns on the Bill’s initial wording was that a pregnant women going through depression and turning suicidal as a result of the pregnancy presents a grave danger to her life, and some felt that this may be used as a justification for an abortion.

In such a case, Fearne said that there were other medical means which can be considered, such as anti-depressants, in order to treat the patient.

Pregnancy may not be terminated when the baby is viable

Another clarification added to the proposed Criminal Code amendment was to define when a pregnancy termination may take place.

Fearne noted that some had said that the wording of the Bill was vague enough to allow for a pregnancy to be terminated even if it is, for example, at eight months.  He said that this was never the government’s intention, and that the point will be clarified in order to remove any form of doubt.

Therefore, a criteria denoting that if a pregnancy is viable – ergo that the baby is at a stage of its development that it can live outside of the womb according to current Maltese medical practices, then the pregnancy cannot be terminated and the baby must be born.

The amendments in fact define the “period of viability” as “the point in a pregnancy at which the foetus is capable of living outside the uterus according to current medical practices.”

How the decision to terminate a pregnancy is taken

The new amendments also provide for how a decision to terminate a pregnancy may be taken if the prospective mother is in danger of dying, and if the foetus in the womb is not viable.

The first scenario provided for in the amended Bill is when the prospective mother is in imminent danger of losing her life.

Fearne noted that these situations do not happen every day, or even frequently, but they do happen.  He gave an example of a woman who may be losing so much blood that she would need to be operated on within the hour or else die.

In such instances, the medical professional may take the decision unilaterally to act immediately to save the mother, even if it is results in the loss of the pregnancy – assuming always that the foetus has not reached the point of being viable.

The second scenario provides for situations where the mother’s life is in danger as a result of the pregnancy, but that danger is not immediate.

Fearne presented two examples: one where the prospective mother may have cancer which could spread, and another where the prospective mother has a heart condition which means that she may be able to cope with the pregnancy at an early stage, but not at a late stage.

In such cases, again provided that the foetus is not viable, a decision to terminate may be taken – but it must be taken by a medical team consisting of three medical professionals.

Two of these three must be obstetricians, while the third must be a specialist in the medical issue which the mother is going through (for example: a cardiologist, if the mother has a heart condition).

The Bill has also been amended to state that any such decision must be taken in a licensed hospital with all the necessary facilities for the intervention to take place.

Providing peace of mind

Fearne reiterated that the changes to the Bill were to provide peace of mind to both doctors and mothers, but also to those who had concerns on the Bill.

“This is an amendment which allows doctors to do their jobs with serenity, puts the potential mother’s mind at rest, and also puts the mind of a lot of genuine people in the country who felt that this law would have opened the door for abuses at rest as well,” Fearne said.

Justice Minister Jonathan Attard, who was also present at the press conference, also criticised the PN’s previous position on the Bill, saying that the party was content with the way the law is today, and added that there are no negotiations when it comes to saving the mother’s life.

 

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