The international media – from The Guardian to The Washington Post, from Reuters to Euronews – are reporting that Malta is proposing to loosen up its anti-abortion law. So has this newspaper, which described the draft law tabled by the health minister, Chris Fearne, as a “bill that will make abortion legal”.
The government denies that’s what it’s doing. The prime minister has said his government has no mandate to introduce abortion. The bill states it’s only giving legal clarity. It makes explicit that the current law permits doctors to intervene to save a mother’s life.
The international media have got it wrong before. When the Andrea Prudente case arose a few months ago, they said she was denied life-saving treatment.
But the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists strongly protested that life-saving treatment is never refused. It added that protocols allow for individualised treatment tailored for unique circumstances.
So, who’s right? Ordinarily, we should go with what a bill says. But, in this case, the character of the bill is clouded by three issues.
First, the government is creating doubt by both affirming and denying that the proposed law does anything more than legitimise explicitly what doctors currently do anyway.
Prudente’s partner, Jay Weeldreyer, has said the bill is an admission by the government that the current law failed his partner. As though to confirm Weeldreyer’s claim, Robert Abela has said the bill would prevent a repetition of the Prudente case.
That suggests that the law is introducing something new. But what? The College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has said that a mother’s life is always a priority, so what could Abela mean?
We don’t know because there’s no public, official version of what happened. Was her life really at imminent risk? Abela hints it was. If so, is the law to blame or were mistakes made that had nothing to do with the law?
If this bill had been law when Prudente sought treatment, would she have been treated differently? Right now, we can’t tell. Abela wags his finger and tells us to learn the lessons of a case whose details he keeps hidden from us.
Second, the wording of the bill lends itself to divergent interpretations.
An eminent legal authority, Giovanni Bonello, insists the current law permits intervention to save the mother’s life. Doctors for Life have endorsed the law as it stands. If all the bill does is make explicit what Bonello says is implicit, then no reasonable anti-abortion activist could object.
However, two terms in the bill lend themselves to more than one meaning.
The bill speaks about the “termination of pregnancy”. Does “termination” cover only procedures currently used (or others that respect the same ethical principles)? Or does the amendment permit procedures that currently fall foul of the law?
In the latter case, the media would be right. We would indeed be loosening our anti-abortion law.
Robert Abela has framed the bill in partisan terms. He has goaded the opposition. He has been unnecessarily divisive- Ranier Fsadni
Next, the bill does not speak only about the risk to a mother’s life. It also refers to terminating a pregnancy in case of complications that put her health in grave jeopardy.
A reasonable anti-abortion activist should readily see why the added detail is needed. Not all grave health risks place one’s life in danger. But some do. It’s not always easy to know which of them will.
A law that protects doctors, acting in good faith to save a mother’s life, needs to give latitude for the exercise of judgement in complex, unique situations.
However, it’s also reasonable to ask if granting more latitude could enable abortion to enter by stealth.
For example, Prudente spoke of her experience as “terrifying” while her doctors clearly did not think she was objectively right to be terrified. Justified or not, terror can jeopardise your health. In future, would it be enough for a mother to be terrified for a serious threat to her health to be determined? Would the law as amended permit that?
It’s possible that such ambiguities will be resolved in dialogue with the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, or some other group of specialist experts, who would be charged with stipulating the protocols by which grave threats to health are determined. Fearne has said as much. The ball might have even started rolling by the time you read this.
But such questions – to do with ambiguity and suspicion – have been allowed to arise unnecessarily. There’s a third issue clouding the bill: the way Abela has gone about to promote it.
He has framed the bill in partisan terms. He has goaded the opposition. He has been unnecessarily divisive. Early reports suggest there has been little consultation even with experts.
If the government had wanted to stir opposition to the bill, it couldn’t have gone about it much better.
The pity of it is that non-partisan consensus should be within reach. It wasn’t difficult for the government to proceed with wide consultation to make sure that the first reading of the bill is accompanied with a united front and the backing of the major stakeholders.
Instead, Abela has belittled our current law to aggrandise the legal amendment. By his comments, he may have thrown Malta under the bus in the constitutional case that Prudente has instituted.
He’s made drama of the amendment. He’s depicted it as a major piece of legislation. He’s suggested that anyone not in its favour is on the wrong side of history.
Indeed, he’s spoken in the way you’d expect if he were proposing the partial legalisation of abortion. No wonder the media have picked up the news as just such a story.
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