An amendment to Malta's abortion laws will continue to be debated in parliament once MPs have wrapped up work on changes to the standards commissioner law, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Monday. 

Fearne said the controversial amendment is high on parliament's agenda and is next in line to be debated - something he thinks will happen soon.

“It is a matter of weeks before we will be discussing this in parliament,” he said. 

“Once the process on the standards commissioner bill is concluded, the consideration of bills committee will be looking at this amendment,” he added.

The 'standards commissioner bill' that the minister made reference to seeks to introduce an anti-deadlock mechanism into the Standards of Public Life Act, allowing a standards commissioner to be elected with a simple majority if a two-thirds consensus cannot be obtained. 

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

The abortion amendment was first presented late last year and proposed allowing doctors to terminate pregnancies if the woman's life or health is in “grave danger”. 

That wording drew considerable criticism and was met with fierce opposition from groups of doctors, nurses, clerics, academics and anti-abortion civil society groups, as well as the Nationalist Party.  

They say that the passing of the amendment would lead to a de facto legalisation of abortion in Malta, something the government has denied. 

Despite the backlash, Prime Minister Robert Abela said he was determined to revise local abortion laws to ensure pregnant women whose life or health is at risk are given that option. 

Faced with concerns within his own Labour Party, however, Abela pledged to "tweak" the amendment's wording, to make it clearer.  

Abela's second-in-command, Fearne, hinted at some of those changes two weeks ago. 

The bill would be revised to clarify that a foetus "must be born" if it is viable, Fearne said, and to "minimise the possibility of abuse" by doctors involved in termination. 

Fearne did not elaborate on that latter point and also did not provide any further detail about the government's plans to change the bill, when asked to do so on Monday. 

The abortion bill, which seeks to amend Malta's criminal code, cleared parliament's second reading stage in December and must now be discussed - and potentially altered - within a parliamentary committee before being presented to all MPs for a third and final vote.  

Anti-abortion activists and the PN have both said that they are unconvinced by the changes proposed by Fearne two weeks ago, and continue to oppose the bill. 

Abortion became a hot topic in Malta in the last few months following the case of US tourist Andrea Prudente, who was denied a termination at 16 weeks, despite health complications.

She was eventually medically evacuated to Spain, where doctors carried out the procedure. The incident has sparked the government to introduce a bill allowing abortion should the mother’s life or health be in “grave” danger.

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