It will be up to doctors to decide what conditions justify a medical intervention that would result in the termination of a pregnancy, under the terms of legal amendments being debated by parliament, Robert Abela has said.

Medical professionals would make those decisions "according to the established best practices" and anyone caught "abusing or stretching" the law would be criminally prosecuted, the prime minister told reporters on Wednesday.

"I trust our medical professionals in their clinical judgment," he added. 

Robert Abela speaks to reporters. Video: Chris Sant Fournier.

Parliament is currently discussing an amendment to the criminal code that will free doctors and pregnant women from the threat of criminal prosecution if a pregnancy is terminated to protect a woman "suffering from a medical complication which may put her life at risk or her health in grave jeopardy."

The proposal has sparked a national debate, with critics saying the government is trying to introduce abortion by stealth and proponents saying the changes are needed to ensure legal certainty. 

A group of academics has argued that the proposal as it is currently worded could be used to justify terminations due to mental health-related conditions. That argument was repeated by the nurses' union on Wednesday. 

The Medical Association of Malta, which represents doctors, told Times of Malta on Wednesday that it has not yet taken a position on the legal amendments. 

Abela insists interpretation will be narrow

Abela hit out at a Net News story which, citing law professor Kevin Aquilina, claimed that the amendment would allow a woman to abort by reporting stress, guilty feelings about the pregnancy or even the realisation that she cannot afford to raise a child.

The prime minister said that abortion was completely off the table for such cases, echoing his statement in parliament that the amendments would only cover exceptional and rare instances.

But when asked what a doctor should do if a stressed pregnant woman claimed that she wanted to die by suicide, he did not respond.

Abela would also not confirm whether the law would be accompanied by guidelines that doctors would have to follow when making the decision about whether or not to end a pregnancy.

"After much consideration, we restricted the law only to cases in which the woman's health is in 'grave jeopardy,' to eliminate the risk of a wider interpretation," he said.

"That wording very clearly defines what should and what should not be permissible under this new amendment, according to the established best practices."

Abela hints at president's discomfort with law

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Times of Malta reported that President George Vella has told people close to him he is prepared to resign if parliament approves the amendment as proposed by the government.

Vella has previously said that he would rather resign than sign a bill allowing abortion.

Abela said he had spoken to Vella about the amendment. He would not divulge what was said, though he did suggest Vella has concerns about the law.

The government will "address everything that is possible", Abela said, as he sought to downplay the issue. 

"Several former presidents had reservations or concerns about amendments that were being discussed in parliament during their tenure," he said.

"Our job is to address every possible thing that can be addressed."

Abela insisted that the amendment will in no way introduce abortion, arguing it will simply codify an unofficial, long-standing practice among doctors at Mater Dei Hospital into law.

It will also make sure a story like Andrea Prudente's never happens again because it would most definitely lead prosecutors to charge doctors and women in court.

"We will remain committed to saving the health and the life of both the mother and the foetus. Whenever that is possible, that is what we will do, and this is why it's not an abortion law," he said.

"But we cannot continue to close our eyes to situations like these. We cannot continue to do nothing."

When asked whether the government is considering changing the wording of the law in any way, he did not rule out the possibility but insisted that in his view, the amendment contains the best possible wording. 

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