Updated 4.43pm with details of amendment

A bill that will make abortion legal when a pregnant woman’s life is at risk or her health is in "grave jeopardy" was given a first reading in parliament on Monday.

Health Minister Chris Fearne tabled the motion seeking to amend Malta’s strict anti-abortion laws at the end of the morning parliamentary sitting. The motion was seconded by fellow MP Michael Farrugia, who like Fearne is a doctor by profession.

The amendments, announced to the public last week, are intended to free doctors and pregnant women from the threat of criminal prosecution if a pregnancy is terminated for health-related reasons.

What does the amendment allow?

Currently, abortion is outlawed in all circumstances and both the doctor and mother risk jail time if they go ahead with a termination, irrespective of the reasons why.

The new amendment allows for an exception when the pregnant woman's health is at risk.

It says that no offence shall be committed "when the termination of a pregnancy results from a medical intervention aimed at protecting the health of a pregnant woman suffering from a medical complication which may put her life at risk or health in grave jeopardy". 

Abortion will remain illegal in most circumstances, including rape and incest and in cases of severe foetal malformation.

Why have the changes been made?

The issue arose following a controversy surrounding a tourist who was refused an abortion in June last year even though her 16-week-old foetus was deemed no longer viable and she risked developing life-threatening complications.

Andrea Prudente was told there would have to be an imminent risk to her life before the pregnancy could be terminated. She was later airlifted to Spain for the procedure and has since filed a constitutional case over Malta's law.

Shortly afterwards, Health Minister Chris Fearne announced he would be reviewing the parts of the law that prevent doctors from providing care when it is needed. 

What happens next?

Having been tabled, the amendments will now proceed to a second reading, during which Fearne will introduce the bill to the House, which can discuss it. The bill may be referred to parliament’s health committee for a more in-depth discussion on potential amendments.

Finally, the amendments will be moved for a third reading and a vote.

The Opposition has not yet expressed an opinion on the amendments, though given the nine-seat majority that the government enjoys in parliament, any eventual vote will effectively be a formality.

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