The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has described proposed changes to Malta's abortion laws as "a first imperative step to protect women’s rights."
In a brief statement in which she described the proposed bill as "decriminalising abortion" when a woman’s life or health is at risk, Dunja Mijatović said further measures must follow to fully guarantee women’s access to safe and legal abortion care.
She said that key steps Malta should take to protect women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are:
- Repeal provisions criminalising abortion and provide access to safe and legal abortion care;
- Safeguard access to health care in case of refusals on grounds of conscience;
- Make contraceptive services available and affordable;
- Provide mandatory comprehensive sexuality education.
In a country report issued in February, the Council of Europe had said that Malta’s blanket ban on abortion put women’s right to health at serious risk.
“It is time for the authorities to repeal provisions criminalising abortion, develop comprehensive regulation of women’s access to legal and safe abortion and improve the availability of sexual and reproductive health services,” the Council’s commission for human rights had said.
“Moreover, the authorities should guarantee equality for all women in the enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights, including by providing evidence-based information and mandatory comprehensive sexuality education, ensuring the availability and affordability of modern contraceptive services, and safeguarding access to health care in the light of refusals to provide care on grounds of conscience."
The government it seeking to amend the criminal code to remove the threat of prosecution when a pregnancy is terminated due to the woman's life or health being in "grave jeopardy".
Prime Minister Robert Abela has consistently insisted that the bill is not related to "abortion", insisting that provisions against abortion in the criminal code are not being removed.
He has however said that he is open to discussing alterations to the wording, provided doctors and women are safeguarded from the threat of criminal action for health-related terminations.
Critics say the amendments are too vaguely worded and intended to quietly introduce abortion into Malta.
The opposition, the Catholic church and several NGOs view the bill as not needed, since no one has ever been prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy for medical reasons. They also argue that 'health' as included in the text of the bill is open to interpretation and opens the way to abortion. The bishops in a letter to MPs last week said it was wrong to prioritise human health over human life.
The Church, along with others, has instead proposed an alternative provision that would remove the reference to the term 'health'.
It would ensure that no criminal action would be taken against a doctor or mother should a baby in the womb die as a result of a medical intervention performed with the intention of saving the life of the mother, rather than her health.