Robert Abela has warned that whoever abused the legislative amendment allowing the termination of a pregnancy when a woman’s life or health is at risk, will have to face legal proceedings as abortion will remain illegal in Malta.

The prime minister was speaking on One Radio on Sunday morning, where he also paid tribute to Bernice Cassar, a woman who was shot dead on Tuesday, allegedly by her estranged husband.

Abela said state and society had failed to do enough to safeguard domestic victims of violence, noting that protection orders were not enough if there were not enough human resources to protect those at risk.

Cassar had told police a week before her murder that her husband had breached a court order designed to protect her from the man who allegedly once held a knife to her throat.

A timeline of the mother-of-two's calls for help, given to Times of Malta, shows how she faced court and police delays as she tried to protect herself.

“It is clear that the state, country and society didn’t do all that needed to be done. If we had done all that was needed to be done, we would not have had three murders of women this year.

“A lot has been done, including reforms, but there is still a lot to do,” he added.

He commended the work of social institutions and also the police’s domestic violence unit, which he said dealt with dozens of domestic violence cases and prevented further crimes.

Abela referred to the introduction of femicide in the criminal code, and the government’s plans to allow people to check with the police whether their partner has any history of domestic violence. The government was also planning on increasing the number of magistrates ruling over domestic violence cases from one to three.

However, he said it was useless to quote statistics linked to successes in the face of a loss of life.

He called for an end to patriarchal behaviour that treated women as objects and slammed sexist comments aimed at a sports pundit over her World Cup commentary on TVM.  

“The state needs to have a consistent message about the safeguarding of women, institutions that holistically work in favour of safeguarding women, and a legislative framework that reflects the realities of today's society, which are not the same as 30 years ago.

“We cannot have a protection order that is not backed by other institutions... the person in favour of whom it has been issued should have their mind at rest that there are human resources that protect them,” he said.

“We need a robust system that as much as possible prevent such cases from ever happening again,” he added.

In his address, Abela also referred to a motion tabled by Health Minister Chris Fearne earlier this week seeking to amend Malta’s strict anti-abortion laws.

Intended to free doctors and pregnant women from the threat of criminal prosecution if a pregnancy is terminated for health-related reasons, it follows a controversy surrounding a tourist who was refused an abortion in June even though her 16-week-old foetus was deemed no longer viable and she risked developing life-threatening complications.

“The amendment will not legalise abortion. It is disappointing that some are trying to justify their opposition to this amendment by twisting facts. They have every right to oppose it, but not to instil fear. Twisting facts is a disservice to the public.”

Laws making abortion illegal in Malta will be untouched, he reassured.

He noted that according to Attorney General’s advice, when terminating a pregnancy to save a woman’s life, the woman and the medics are still exposed to criminal proceedings under the current circumstances.

Only the AG’s granting of immunity could stop the authorities from taking legal action against the woman and the medics.

No matter what the common practice in such circumstances was, it could not override legislation, Abela insisted.

He warned, however, that “whoever abuses this amendment, would be breaking the existing law" and will face proceedings, he said, insisting that abortion is illegal. 

“The existing practice already safeguards the life of the prospective mother and her health from grievous danger. The only thing that will change is peace of mind from legislative proceedings.

“If the opposition doesn’t want to legally protect the health of the mother, it should come forward and say so, rather than instil fear and confusion,” he said.

Malta Women's Lobby reacts

In a reaction, the Malta Women's Lobby said the hard truth is that institutions that are run by the state have failed.

When those who hold power shift blame, by watering down their responsibility and make empty promises, their behaviour is akin to that of perpetrators who gaslight, minimise their responsibility and give false assurances, it said.

"It is all well and good to churn out the usual clichés, that 'we must do better', or promising to implement the right reforms to effect change.

"Bernice Cassar did everything in her power, and more, to keep herself and her children safe.

"We do not need another inquiry to tell us if anything could have been done differently.

"What we need is action, action that should have been taken when the recommendations of a government study into domestic violence were presented to the authorities a year ago," the lobby insisted.

It added:

"Prime Minister, the recommendations were on your desk 12 months ago, but they were left to gather dust.  Words matter, Prime Minister. It’s time to put your money where your mouth is."

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