Updated 8.30pm - adds Rosianne Cutajar

Malta has changed its abortion laws for the first time in history, with parliament approving a law allowing doctors to terminate a pregnancy in limited circumstances. 

MPs approved Bill 28 to amend Malta's Criminal Code on Wednesday afternoon, seven months after it was first tabled in parliament.

All Government and Opposition MPs voted in favour of the bill, following seven months of heated debate that saw people from all camps take to the streets to express themselves on one of the most divisive national debates in recent history.

Bill 28 will now land on President George Vella's desk for his signature, which will officially enact it into law.

When will abortions be permitted?

The bill allows doctors to carry out an abortion if a woman's life is at immediate risk or her health is in "grave jeopardy which may lead to her death".

Terminations can only take place once all other treatments have been exhausted and the decision must be taken by three specialists except in emergency cases.

Interventions can only take place in licensed clinics and if the foetus can live outside the womb, the doctors must help the mother give birth. 

Even once the bill is enacted into law, Malta will still have among the strictest abortion laws in the world and abortion will remain illegal under all other circumstances including rape, incest and severe foetal abnormalities.

A watered-down version of original proposal

The bill is a watered-down version of another bill that was originally presented late last year, and which would have originally allowed terminations when a mother's health was in "grave jeopardy", without elaborating.

While the revised version of the bill was welcomed by pro-life activists, the Church and PN, it has drawn criticism from pro-choice campaigners, who have accused the government of "betraying" women. 

Leading pro-life campaigner Miriam Sciberras speaks during a protest in late 2022. Photo: Matthew MirabelliLeading pro-life campaigner Miriam Sciberras speaks during a protest in late 2022. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Following Wednesday's parliamentary vote, pro-choice activists changed their social media profile photos to solid black images, in a sign of protest against the law. 

Independent MP Rosianne Cutajar, who was not present when the bill was passed, told parliament's speaker later during Wednesday's session that she would have "preferred Bill 28 as it was originally tabled."

A national debate sparked by a tourist's experience

When it first tabled the bill in parliament last November, the government had said it felt the need to propose the amendments after 38-year-old Andrea Prudente was denied a request for abortion in Malta after suffering the symptoms of a miscarriage.

Prudente was eventually airlifted to Spain and had her pregnancy terminated there. She and her partner are now suing the Maltese state, alleging a breach of rights. 

Hospital physicians who testified in the case have said that Prudente was never at risk of dying while she was in Malta.

Robert Abela said the bill would avoid a Prudente situation from happening again.

Protests from either side of the debate

But the proposal attracted strong criticism from multiple quarters.

Some, such as the Opposition, Church and pro-life organisations, accused the government of trying to sneak abortion into law and argued that there was no need to change the law, because women were never left to die due to pregnancy complications.

Others, such as doctors' and nurses' associations, said the bill's vague wording would leave them legally exposed. 

The pro-choice camp was equally vocal on the issue, insisting the original amendment was a good step and the beginning of a much-needed reform that would start granting women their fundamental rights to safe and accessible abortions.

Pro-choice activists hold placards outside parliament during a demonstration in June. Photo: Matthew MirabelliPro-choice activists hold placards outside parliament during a demonstration in June. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

They noted that hundreds of women in Malta already obtain an abortion every year. Allowing abortion to remain a crime would only put their health in serious danger and discriminate against women without the financial means to obtain one abroad, they argued. 

Meanwhile, President George Vella, who has said on multiple occasions that he would rather resign than sign an abortion law, made it clear he was not happy with the bill's original wording.

A months-long freeze

Having presented the amendments in parliament last November, the government then froze the parliamentary process as it sought to revise the bill's wording. 

After seven months that were riddled with controversy, the government announced new wording last week. 

A coalition of pro-life activists welcomed the updated wording but pro-choice coalition Voice for Choice said the changes were a "betrayal".  Women would end up dead or disabled if the bill were to become law, it warned.

Will another Prudente case be avoided?

While the government has repeatedly said that the amendments were sparked by the Andrea Prudente debacle, it remains unclear whether the revised amendments approved by parliament on Wednesday would be enough to prevent a similar case in the future. 

Two gynaecologists who hold opposing views on the bill both told Times of Malta that the new wording would not have made any difference in the Andrea Prudente case.

All the while, Robert Abela insists that the bill approved on Wednesday is "not about abortion" - but says that conversation about the divisive topic has now taken off and that nobody can stop it

Conservative forces have won over common sense - Rosianne Cutajar

In a statement on Facebook, independent MP Rosianne Cutajar said 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 that, in Parliament, she requested but was denied permission to make a statement on the Bill with Nationalist MPs objecting to her request.

She said she made her request because no individual electronic vote was taken contrary to what was usually done.

Cutajar asked if this was because there was fear that not all MPs would vote in favour.

Although her vote would not have made a difference, 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.

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