Outgoing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat wants to start a national debate on the possible introduction of abortion after he steps down tomorrow.

Addressing Labour Party supporters for the last time as prime minister on Friday, Dr Muscat told a packed sports hall in Corradino that once he steps down from Castille, he planned on pushing for new civil liberties, which until now were considered taboo, but stopped short of being specific on what these may be.

Sources close to Dr Muscat told The Sunday Times of Malta that the “rights” he was referring to include abortion, probably the most controversial civil liberties topic on the island.

When contacted, Dr Muscat declined to comment, saying he had nothing more to add to his speech. Malta has the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world, with the practice banned under any circumstances

It remains the only EU state which has a full prohibition on abortion. In recent years, especially, it has fiercely polarised those in favour and against its introduction though surveys have always shown the majority to be against its introduction.

The government has repeatedly insisted it does not plan on changing abortion laws and says the right to life is an inherent right of every human being, including the unborn child, from conception.

Dr Muscat has himself come out against the introduction of abortion in the past. In January 2018 he had told the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner that the government did not have the mandate nor public support to open a debate on access to abortion.

He has since softened his stance, saying back in May of last year that Malta should have a mature discussion on the matter. His decision to invoke one of the most controversial civil liberties issues in the Maltese political context also appears to jar with his previous commitment to take a back seat once the new prime minister takes over on Monday.

Both leadership contenders Chris Fearne and Robert Abela had said during the race to replace Dr Muscat, that they did not support the introduction of abortion.

During Friday’s speech, Dr Muscat hinted that his reasoning for pushing more civil liberties once stepping down from office may have something to do with his political legacy. He told that crowd of emotional party supporters that in recent weeks he had been asked what he would like to be remembered for.

“I wasn’t presumptuous, and I don’t plan on becoming so now. But I am a person who always chose to look to the future,” he said.

Reacting to Dr Muscat’s speech, Archbishop Charles Scicluna on Saturday also appeared to pick up on the outgoing prime minister’s hint.

In a tweet, Mgr Scicluna said that anybody who has the best interests and the civil liberties of future generations truly at heart, would promote a “culture of life and responsible love where the rights of the unborn are promoted and protected”.

During his speech, Dr Muscat himself suggested that his civil liberties drive may pit him against the Church, recalling the 2011 divorce referendum.

At the time, Dr Muscat said, he had been warned that he risked having the Church in Malta turn against him, as had happened to controversial prime minister Dom Mintoff during the turbulent 1960s.

It is not clear how Dr Muscat would seek to involve himself in the debate on abortion, though during his speech he did say that it would continue even after he steps down from Parliament. Sources close to Dr Muscat on Saturday said he would “foster a debate which he believes needs to take place on the issue”.

During his farewell speech, Dr Muscat said he was certain that his plan would not go down well with everyone, but said he felt “a debt to future generations” to fight for new civil rights “on a progressive agenda”.

“I want to be there, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the next generation, so that those rights, that till today are still only said in hushed whispers, can start being debated too,” he said.

Those who believed Malta had done it all when it comes to civil liberties were detached from the realities of younger generations, he insisted.

The issue of abortion last came to the fore during the 2019 European Parliament election, with the Nationalist Party warning that Labour planned to introduce abortion by stealth.

At the time, the Nationalist and Democratic parties had pledged to add the words “from conception” to Article 33 of the Constitution, which currently states: “No person shall be intentionally deprived of his life save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence under the law of Malta of which he has been convicted.”

The Democratic Party later qualified this pledge as its members expressed diverging views, while the PN also said legal aspects would have to be examined further.