President George Vella confirmed on Wednesday that he would have resigned had the government not moved amendments to a bill widely seen as introducing abortion.

Vella, whose term ends on Thursday, had given clear indications of his discomfort with the bill in late 2022 and it was Times of Malta which had revealed that, according to informed sources, he was prepared to take the unprecedented action of stepping down. Vella himself had not commented publicly at the time.

In terms of Maltese law and practice, the president is required to sign Bills approved by parliament, his only options being to resign or challenge the constitutionality of such legislation.

He eventually signed the bill after the government relented and watered it down in July. The bill allowed doctors to terminate a pregnancy when a woman’s life was at risk or her health was in “grave jeopardy which may lead to death.” In the latter case, the termination must be approved by three doctors. The wording of the bill had previously been seen as being broader and vague, leading to questions of interpretation.  

The president made his admission on being prepared to step down in an interview with TVM broadcast in the programme Popolin.

He explained that he had made it clear before his appointment that he was not prepared to sign abortion legislation into law. The prime minister had assured him no such bill would be moved. However matters changed and the bill that went before the House could have been interpreted as opening the door to abortion. Vella said he would not have challenged parliament, but in view of his strong moral objections he would have resigned. His only worry was the constitutional issues that would have been created. He was happy, however, that common sense had prevailed and he was comfortable with the bill as amended.

President Vella also spoke on the need to further extend the powers of the presidency. The president's powers are mostly ceremonial but in 2020 they were extended, following calls by the Venice Commission for constitutional amendments. Those amendments gave the president the authority to select and appoint the members of the judiciary from a shortlist submitted by a judicial appointments committee.

Vella also called for greater powers to the president in the granting of presidential pardons. At present the president is required to sign pardons proposed by the prime minister or the Cabinet and has no actual say.

Vella said that in the only pardon he signed, for Melvin Theuma to turn state evidence in Daphne Caruana Galizia proceedings, he had called in the attorney general and the police commissioner so that he too could be persuaded on the need for the pardon. 

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