Thu. Nov 24th, 2022

Malta plans to relax its strict anti-abortion laws by allowing termination of pregnancy when the health or life of the mother is at risk, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Wednesday.

The Mediterranean island is the only member state of the European Union that has a complete ban on abortion, including cases of rape or incest.

Its population – overwhelmingly Roman Catholic – remains largely against the practice. In a recent survey, 61.8% of Maltese expressed opposition to abortion.

Fearne noted that legislative amendments to be introduced to parliament next week will address situations where a woman’s life or health is seriously at risk and the fetus is too young to be born.

He said at the press conference that currently a doctor can be sentenced to up to four years in prison if he terminates a pregnancy to save the life of the mother. Women who terminate their pregnancies for the same reason were also sentenced to four years in prison.

“The choice is not whether the mother or the baby survives. The choice here is whether both mother and baby die or whether the mother’s life is saved,” he said.

“We do not believe that a woman after going through this ordeal should face the possibility of a prison sentence.”

In an interview with The Times of Malta earlier this month, Prime Minister Robert Abela shared his support for the amendment to the existing law.

However, he expressed his belief that approving the termination of dangerous pregnancies is not the same as “decriminalizing abortion.”

“This is a sensitive issue that should not be monopolized by politicians. This discussion should be led by the wider society,” said Abela.

Fearne himself also described the reform as “pro-life”.

The case of Andrea Prudente: a catalyst for change

The proposed reform was prompted by the case of American tourist Andrea Prudente, who was denied a request to end her unsustainable pregnancy in June after she started bleeding profusely.

Prudente was 16 weeks pregnant at the time and her condition worsened to the point where it became potentially fatal. However, the Maltese doctors could not perform the procedure while the fetus’s heart was still beating.

“It was terrifying,” Prudente told the BBC earlier this year. “One of the midwives told me when I was ‘on the brink of death’… then they could intervene by terminating.”

Prudente was eventually evacuated to Spain, where she miscarried.

In September, Prudente sued the Maltese government, asking the courts to declare the law banning abortion in all circumstances a violation of human rights.

The case has not yet come to trial.