The vote on the second reading of an amendment to the criminal code concerning the termination of pregnancies has been put off to next week, after the opposition called a division.
The decision means that the all-important final vote at the end of the legislative process will not be held before the end of the year.
The amendment states that doctors and women will not be subject to prosecution when a pregnancy is terminated during medical intervention when a mother’s life or health are in danger.
It has triggered a storm of criticism, with the opposition arguing that the government is trying to introduce abortion by stealth.
The decision to put off the vote means that the committee stage of the bill, when amendments can be moved, is likely to be debated after the Christmas recess in January. It will then be followed by the final vote on the bill's third reading.
All opposition MPs participate in the debate
Speakers in the debate on Monday included PN MP Chris Said who reiterated the Opposition’s objections to the bill.
He observed that even lawyer Joe Brincat, a former minister and deputy leader of the Labour Party, had written to the PL saying it was deceiving the people and introducing a more lax abortion law than in many other countries.
David Agius (PN) tabled the letter sent to MPs by the bishops of Malta and Gozo, urging them to recognise how serious their decision would be and to choose life over death. He also tabled the pastoral letter issued by the bishops as well as an opinion issued by a number of professors and others on the subject. Agius urged the government to be prepared to amend the bill.
Ian Vassallo (PN) also called for amendments to avoid unnecessary deaths when there was no risk to the life of the mother. Life was a fundamental right of everyone, he said, including those who were still to be born. This, he said, was too important an issue to be considered on partisan lines and the country should reflect on the matter as a whole. Vassallo pointed out that these were not just his words, but also those of former President Marie Lousie Coleiro Preca at a public manifestation last week. He then tabled the former president's speech.
Opposition whip Robert Cutajar then tabled remarks by Nationalist MP Ryan Callus. He said that Callus could not be present for the debate, but the presentation of his remarks meant all the members of the opposition had spoken with one voice against this bill.
Justice Minister's views
The debate was concluded by Justice Minister Jonathan Attard, who insisted that the overriding principle of the bill was to assure the right to life for the mother.
Attard criticised interventions in the debate by the opposition, describing them as puerile.
He underlined the importance of the bill to protect doctors from prosecution and said the opposition was irresponsible and malicious in its objections, confirming that the PN was the party of division and stigma.
The PL had been accused of moving this bill to win votes, and then other speakers said everyone was against this bill, he observed.
Opposition speakers had demonised all those who disagreed with their extremist view.
The bottom line was that the PN wanted nothing to be done, despite the obvious shortcomings of the existing law. This was politics of hypocrisy by those comfortable living a lie, he said.
The same argument applied to the initial group of academics who had come out against this law. Argumentation was healthy, but one should also notice 165 other academics who had backed the bill and were ignored by the opposition, the minister said.
How could the government allow this shortcoming of the law to persist? What if a mother died?
Every case, he said, would be considered on its merits, now based on updated legislation which lifted the risk of prosecution of doctors which at present could lead them to hold off treatment.
The fact that no doctor had been prosecuted so far was not good enough, and now doctors could intervene to help mothers without risk of prosecution if a pregnancy was terminated.
However, when a pregnancy was viable, every effort would be made to save it, as well as the mother, Attard said.
Decisions on medical interventions would be taken by doctors who would decide when circumstances were so extreme that a pregnancy could be terminated, he said.
Therefore it was wrong for anyone to say that this bill opened the door for abortion.
The minister said the fact that the PN was the party of stigma was also shown by the fact that it wanted cases of mental health not to be considered when decisions were taken on whether conditions were serious enough to justify the termination of pregnancy.
It was wrong to consider mental health as having lesser importance, Attard said, while insisting that here too, it would be doctors to decide if conditions were sufficiently serious.
Concluding, the minister observed that MPs had been urged to act responsibly. That was what the government was doing in addressing a shortcoming of the law which could have caused mothers to lose their life.
Attard said the government remained open to discussing this Bill but the debate needed to be mature. The government would also not shift from the cardinal principle of protecting the mother's life and health.
At the end of the sitting, the opposition called a division - a vote where all MPs vote individually. The Speaker said that in terms of an agreement reached between the government and the opposition, the vote will be taken on Monday, December 19.