Several Labour MPs have expressed concern after the government backed down and amended the so-called 'abortion bill' even though they voted in its favour on Wednesday. 

Bill 28 was unanimously approved in parliament, with no one calling a division (individual counting of votes).

The prime minister described the vote as a 'historic day', but several MPs in Labour's liberal wing are far less excited.

"This was a historic mess, not a historic step," one MP told Times of Malta on condition of anonymity.

A top source in the Labour Party said the government "badly handled the issue from beginning to end", and the final, watered-down version of the bill left 'some 10 liberal MPs' disgruntled and disenchanted.

A Cabinet member said MPs were given the impression that the government was embarking on the road to legalisation of abortion as it did with other liberal laws over the past decade. MPs were sent out to defend the original bill, only to then be left alone when the higher echelons of the party saw thousands of people taking to the streets in protest and when the President stood firm in warning he would refuse to sign the bill unless it was amended.  

The bill in its original form allowed termination of pregnancies when a mother's health or life were in clear danger. That has since been narrowed down to circumstances where the mother's life is at risk. 

Last December's pro-life protest in Valletta. PHOTO: Jonathan Borg.Last December's pro-life protest in Valletta. PHOTO: Jonathan Borg.

When the party leadership sensed that the bill could harm the party,  it backtracked, leaving the liberals high and dry, the source said.

One liberal MP echoed that view.

“Many of us were told by the party to defend the original proposal in the media,” the MP said, adding that they had to explain how crucial it was for the bill to include the clause that would allow termination for mental health reasons, for example.

Such women would not be able to terminate their pregnancy in terms of the new wording that has been approved, one MP said.

“We were attacked and threatened (by people who disagreed with us), only for the government to backtrack,” the MP said.

President George Vella signed the amended bill on Friday, officially making it law.

For the government's liberal MPs - most of whom had already felt that the original wording was just the "bare minimum" - the new and approved wording was a step back. None, however, were prepared to publically speak about their objections.

In contrast, Rosianne Cutajar, who was ousted from the Labour parliamentary group some months ago and is now an independent MP, did not shirk from going public. She said on Facebook that the new amendments were not enough to offer women the peace of mind they deserved. They also complicated the lives of vulnerable women.

She said she wanted to make clear that she had supported the original Bill even though it was the bare minimum. Unfortunately, it was not explained well and misinformation together with conservative forces won over common sense, she added.

Labour MPs who spoke to Times of Malta echoed the pro-choice camp's concerns that the law "betrays" women and does not do enough to protect women because it forces doctors to wait till the mother is at risk of losing her life before terminating the pregnancy.

A pro-choice rally in Valletta last September. PHOTO: Chris Sant Fournier.A pro-choice rally in Valletta last September. PHOTO: Chris Sant Fournier.

But since the new wording was announced, Robert Abela has repeatedly made it a point to emphasise that this is not the case.

The new law will allow doctors to act, not simply when a woman is at risk of dying, but when she develops serious health conditions that could lead to her death, he insisted.

"The word could is crucial because we don't want to allow women to be on the brink of death before the law allows doctors to intervene," he told a ONE reporter during an interview on Labour's radio station on Tuesday.

During an interview on ONE last Tuesday, Robert Abela said the bill was never about abortion but the abortion discussion has taken off and must be had nonetheless. PHOTO: Facebook/Robert Abela.During an interview on ONE last Tuesday, Robert Abela said the bill was never about abortion but the abortion discussion has taken off and must be had nonetheless. PHOTO: Facebook/Robert Abela.

'A political mistake that will alienate young voters'

PL insiders who spoke to Times of Malta also criticised the way the law was introduced, saying the government should have been more cautious from the beginning.

 The government lost control of the narrative, allowing the discussion to turn into a debate about abortion, when the initial amendment would have still not introduced abortion, they said.

“The party’s core would have still voted for us, and we could have attracted new young voters, who, as a consequence, are now alienated with the party’s decision,” one MP said.

The bill could have been presented in a way that would have pleased the pro-choice camp and the many young people who are in favour of abortion reform, and still gain acceptance from the pro-life camp, they said.

But the way it was handled had made the government look bad with both camps, because pro-choice people felt frustrated with the government's U-turn and pro-life people are still wary of the government, expecting it to eventually push for further liberalisation of the law.

'Opposition caused misunderstanding within PL'

One cabinet member said the misunderstanding within the Labour Party was likely caused by the Opposition. The approved version did not backtrack from the original wording, he said. Rather, it clarifies it.

"There was no U-turn. We did not change the original principles - we simply made them clearer. And this goes to show that, as we had always insisted, we were never attempting to introduce abortion," he said.

"But the Opposition went on a spin campaign saying we were trying to sneak abortion through the window and some of our own MPs may have thought it was truly the first step towards legalisation. So, when the new wording made it clear that it was not abortion, some of our own MPs felt that we backtracked on abortion. But it was not the case."

Three other Labour MPs and cabinet members said that despite the fact that some colleagues were disillusioned, they did not feel the issue had sowed as much division within the party as some outsiders might have thought.

There was a fairly heated debate during the last parliamentary group meeting in which the bill was discussed, but the party was largely united on that front, a couple of them said.

One MP was less optimistic, saying that feeling was not necessarily a sign of unity but a sense of resignation among many MPs who feel powerless in the face of a recent string of bad decisions from the party administration.

Appeasing the President

One cabinet member said the party administration was mostly concerned over President George Vella's reluctance to sign the bill in its original form. The government was forced to water down the wording specifically to avoid the embarrassment of the first-ever resignation of a president, he said.

President George Vella is known to have been a fierce critic of the original bill behind closed doors. PHOTO: Matthew Mirabelli.President George Vella is known to have been a fierce critic of the original bill behind closed doors. PHOTO: Matthew Mirabelli.

The president would have probably stuck to his guns and resigned, knowing that the government would have probably found it hard to find a quick and non-controversial successor, given that the Constitution now requires parliament's two-thirds support for a new president to be appointed.

“The president failed to fulfil his constitutional obligation,” one liberal MP said, explaining that Vella's role was not to influence decision-making but to sign any bill that goes through parliament because that is where the people's representatives are.

'A step in the right direction'

Despite it all, most liberal MPs feel the new law is still a step in the right direction, albeit a small one.

There is a long way to go, one MP said, but there is a glimmer of hope now that abortion is on the agenda, and several MPs felt comfortable around the subject for the first time.

One cabinet member said the controversy is far from over and further amendments will likely be pushed once George Vella's term as president is over.

On the eve of the final vote in parliament, Abela also hinted at further developments in the near future, saying that the abortion discussion is not over yet. It has taken off and nobody can stop it, he said. 

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