The prime minister on Tuesday accused the Nationalist Party of scaremongering while insisting that a bill on the termination of pregnancies would only be used in a handful of cases where women were in the most critical health condition.
"Those who will use it won't be in their hundreds, not even in their twenties, but only a few (waħdiet) and in very particular circumstances," he told MPs during the debate in parliament.
"And even if there are just one, two or three women who make use of the new law, we have a duty to protect them."
He urged MPs to raise the debate above petty politics and treat the "sensitive subject" with maturity - to put themselves in the shoes of the women and doctors who are forced to take tough decisions when the mother's health is in clear danger.
He referred to the case of Andrea Prudente, saying that despite the fact that the pregnancy was unviable, Maltese doctors could not treat the woman for fear that their intervention could terminate the pregnancy and make them liable to criminal action and imprisonment.
Fortunately, that story ended well, but it could have been a tragedy, he said.
The government’s proposed amendment, he said, would free doctors and pregnant women from the threat of criminal prosecution if a pregnancy was terminated during intervention for serious health-related reasons.
The debate started in the House on Monday. The Nationalist Party has voiced its opposition, joining a group of university lecturers and other sectors who have argued that the definition of women's 'health' in the text of the proposed law could be interpreted to allow abortion even when there is no risk to the life of the mother.
Abela insisted that the Bill was not opening the door to abortion and the existing provisions in the Criminal Code banning abortion would remain in place.
The overriding principle
"We're only discussing one amendment to the criminal code which will ensure we can save the mother's life and health should she suffer an unfortunate complication during her pregnancy," Abela said.
This law would not apply when both the life of the mother and the baby could be saved, he said.
"If we can save both the health and life of the mother as well as the life of the baby, we will. That is our overriding principle, and I want to be very clear about that."
But, he added, the government could not look away from the realities of women who found themselves in what could possibly be the most painful moment of their life.
"If we all agree that nobody should go to prison in such circumstances, why are we not all agreeing on this amendment," he asked his fellow MPs.
Accusing the Nationalist Party of scaremongering, he lashed out at Net News for quoting an article by professor Kevin Aquilina saying that the proposed amendment could allow abortion for far less serious health conditions, such as stress, guilt feelings about the pregnancy or even the realisation that the mother did not have enough money to raise the child.
"Let me be clear. Any doctor who terminates a pregnancy because of stress, guilt feelings or lack of money will be breaking the law. In those cases, both the woman and the doctor should be prosecuted," he said.
He also criticised the group of academics who proposed that the law should limit the procedure to circumstances when there is a “real and substantial risk of loss of the mother’s life”.
"Academics like these came out criticising us when we were moving the IVF laws, the law that banned conversion therapy and the equality bill," he said.
"They always say the intention is good, but there is always a 'but', and they always urge us to preserve the status quo. We will not do that."
He said the government still took the academics' proposal seriously and had looked into it in great detail, but ultimately, its job is to protect people's lives.
"We had women who told us: So I need to be at risk of dying, so that they notice me?" he said.
"We will not allow anyone to suffer like that," he insisted.