Updated 9.50pm

Independent MP Marlene Farrugia's bill proposing the decriminalisation of abortion has been welcomed as "historic" by pro-choice activists, while an anti-abortion NGO said it was "shocked beyond belief".

Farrugia's private members' bill is proposing the decriminalisation of abortion, a crime that carries up to three years' imprisonment in Malta. The PN later said it could never back the decriminalisation of abortion. 

Lara Dimitrijevic, who leads the Women’s Rights Foundation, called the tabling of the bill "historic".

Over the past years the WRF has called for a debate on abortion, the lack of which had surprised former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks in 2017.

Malta is the only EU country that has a total ban on abortion, and Farrugia's draft legislation goes against the declared position of both sides of parliament, facing a tough road if it is ever to be passed. However, it has raised hope of kick-starting a debate about the issue.

As news broke that Farrugia had tabled the bill, pro-choice activists headed to Valletta, with Dimitrijevic telling Times of Malta she was "in shock and awe".

"This is a landmark and historic moment for women and couples too. It shows a sense of humanity in parliament, especially since it comes from Marlene Farrugia who sees the significance it could have for women," she said.

Two years ago, the Democratic Party, founded by Farrugia, ended under the spotlight after its members disagreed over abortion.

PN and PD had just signed a pledge to bring forward amendments that would entrench Malta’s abortion ban into the Constitution. But one of the PD’s MEP candidates, Cami Appelgren, had said she was not in favour of the declaration, which, she insisted had been drafted by "patriarchal fundamentalists”.

Farrugia had said she supported Appelgren, however, rather than saying she was against a blanket ban, she called for a legal framework that would allow a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy as soon as the fetus was viable and could live outside the womb.

PN, PL to discuss internally

On Wednesday, PN leader Bernard Grech told Times of Malta that the party will be discussing Farrugia's bill internally.

"I'm all in favour of caring for sexual health, especially of women. We will be discussing this bill in private, and will be consulting with those willing to discuss it with us. We will have a position when the time comes," he said as he walked out of parliament.

PN MP Claudette Buttigieg meanwhile said that that the bill needed clarification.

“I was not present when the bill was announced and it needs explaining. Both Marlene and Godfrey Farrugia are pro-life, so I don't understand what they want to achieve through this bill," she said, adding that the PN has always been against abortion. 

However, she could not comment further before reading the bill properly.

The PN later said it believed in life from conception till death and could never be in favour of decriminalisation of abortion. 

"The PN is in favour of sexual health measures that do not put a baby's life in danger, before and after birth."

Labour MP and minister Aaron Farrugia told Times of Malta that the party's parliamentary group will discuss the issue internally.

"We are ready to discuss, and then we will decide accordingly," he said.

Pressed to comment on whether he thought the bill will pass, he said the party first needed to listen to all arguments.

"A lot of people have called for this discussion so it is a good thing that we are having such a discussion."

'Historic and in awe'

Dimitrijevic, who turned up outside the building after Farrugia tabled the document, said that if both sides of the house ignored the bill, the government and the opposition will again prove "that women are second citizens".

COVID, she added, has flagged the need for safe access to abortion. 

Earlier this year a local service offering abortion and reproductive health advice received over 200 requests for help in the first six months since its launch in the middle of the pandemic.

Isabel Stabile, founder of Doctors for Choice, who also turned up outside parliament on Wednesday told Times of Malta that she never thought such a bill would be tabled.

“I know of a number of women who live in fear of being criminalised for what they have done. This is not on. Why should women be treated differently? This is the beginning of the end.”

Stabile said that now was the time for politicians to stand up and vote in favour of women.

“This is about treating women as equals, and I believe they have the guts to do this.”

ADPD's chairperson Carmel Cacopardo said Farrugia's tabling of the bill was the first step in launching a discussion about abortion.

"It is necessary to remove the fear to discuss. That is the only way we can move forward," he Tweeted.

'Shocked beyond belief'

Pro-Life NGO Life Network Foundation meanwhile expressed shock at the news.

"Shocked beyond belief. The law is there to make a statement. Decriminalisation = abortion is not wrong. Decriminalisation is the platform to bring in abortion in Malta. It is very clear. Do not be deceived," it warned on Facebook.

National Book Council chair Mark Camilleri thanked Farrugia, whom he said was "Malta's most vociferous politician, a self-made woman and now the champion of women's rights in Parliament".

He said despite the "abhorrent" threat of imprisonment hanging over women's heads because of their medical choices about their own body, only Farrugia was brave enough to start a legislative discussion to stop such discrimination once and for all.

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