On Monday Parliament approved at first reading stage Bill number 28 which Bill seeks to clarify the provisions of the Criminal Code relative to therapeutic abortion. Specifically, the objects and reasons of the Bill seek to “provide clarification on the parameters that shall apply in the Criminal Code to circumstances of necessity in which a medical intervention is required in order to protect the life and health of a pregnant woman suffering from a medical complication”.
Some may consider that Bill 28 is a good first step in a country which has continuously avoided debating abortion. Unfortunately, government’s proposal is half-baked.
After years of avoiding a national debate, it would have been much better if government published a detailed White Paper explaining its views on abortion and the related issues and principles. It is about time that we recognise that the country’s abortion legislation is not fit for purpose. After being ignored for 160 years Maltese abortion legislation requires to be brought in line with medical and scientific progress over the years. It also requires a substantial redrafting in view of the fact that for over a decade Malta has embraced ethical pluralism.
It is clear that government has limited itself to addressing the political fallout resulting from the recent case of the American tourist Andrea Prudente as a result of which Malta failed in the provision of the expected medical care.
We do not require a half-baked reactive proposal but rather a proposal which addresses twenty-first century reality. Whether we like it or not, abortion is a regular occurrence among Maltese too! Indications point towards an average 400 abortions which are carried out annually, a substantial portion of which through the use of abortion pills acquired through the post. Others are carried out through abortion tourism, primarily in the United Kingdom as is evidenced by annual published medical returns for England and Wales.
Apparently, the Labour Party is short on ideas as it has even failed to address abortion in its electoral manifesto for the March 2022 general election.
In contrast to the reluctance of the Labour Party to come forward with proposals, the Maltese Greens, which I lead, have, over the past months presented proposals which in addition to the required clarifications in our legislation seek decriminalisation as well as the specific introduction of abortion in three extraordinary circumstances: namely when the pregnant female’s health or life is under threat, in cases of a pregnancy brought about violently (rape and incest) as well as in the case of non-viable pregnancies.
Some have considered our above proposals as being too little, others as being too much. We consider that in view of the prevailing local circumstances our proposals are just right, a substantial improvement over government’s half-baked proposals and an overhaul of the current mid-nineteen century legislation, which is out of tune with what is expected in this day and age.
There are other related issues which we should also discuss. During this week a group of local academics and some hangers-on have published a discussion paper which discusses government’s abortion proposal.
The proposals in the said discussion paper seek to define the circumstances which justify a medical intervention to protect the life and health of a pregnant woman. It also seeks to exclude all forms of abortion by tightly defining the applicable parameters.
It is a point of view which should be considered and discussed. This is what a mature public debate should be about and what government has been continuously avoiding. I would however expect other academics having different views to come out of the deep freeze and speak up.
We should look beyond the restrictive proposals presented in the discussion paper. Since the 2011 divorce referendum Malta has embarked on a journey of ethical pluralism which respects a plurality of views and ethical norms. The discussion paper is a negation of this journey and an attempt to change course, which attempt should be resisted.
At the end of the day the debate is not about what is right and wrong but on who should take the decision and the parameters within which it is permissible to act. We are not living in a theocracy. Differing views and values can definitely co-exist.
Let the debate, at last, begin.
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 27 november 2022