The government is proposing that the law prohibiting abortion in Malta be entrenched in the Constitution, Home Affairs and Justice Minister Tonio Borg said yesterday.

Dr Borg said the government has already been in touch with the opposition about the issue but emphasised that such a matter was above politics.

In fact, he said, the proposal - which had originally been recommended to the government by the Pro Life Movement - was not going to be published in the Government Gazette as a draft yet. The authorities were giving organisations time to indicate their consent, so that it would be presented for Parliament's approval as a national proposal.

"We want this to be a national proposal coming from all those who have the gift of life at heart," he said.

The announcement was made during a national conference to mark the International Day Of The Midwife. Organised by the Malta Midwives' Association, the conference - The Well-Being Of The Unborn Child - analysed different aspects of the issue.

For the proposal to become law it needs to be approved by two-thirds of the House of Representatives and it would not be able to be changed without a two-thirds majority. Dr Borg expressed his certainty that the majority would vote in favour of such a move.

The proposal received the approval of Labour MP Marie Louise Coleiro, who said she presumed it would be approved, adding she would lobby for it within the Labour Party.

"The MLP is in favour of life," she told The Times, and like Dr Borg stressed that there was no political divergence on the issue.

Speaking to The Times yesterday, Archbishop Joseph Mercieca said the minister's proposal was commendable. He said a collective effort should always be made to preserve life.

Nationalist MP Clyde Puli said that as the president of Parliament's social affairs committee he was also backing the proposal. He would ask the committee members to support it too.

Dr Borg said that in today's fast-paced world many were forgetting about those who were most vulnerable and the unborn fell within this category. "If our materialistic world forgets those who are alive, how easier it is to forget those who have not yet been born," he said.

"We cannot play around with life."

Dr Borg insisted it was not correct to say that an embryo was a "potential" human being. "An embryo starts from fertilisation. There is no pre-embryo," he said.

Dr Borg said the sphere of assisted fertilisation needed to be regulated. He emphasised that couples who were finding it difficult to have children should be given all the help necessary through assisted fertilisation, which he described as "marvellous".

However, he asked whether it was right to have a child who did not have a way of finding out who his father was. Embryonic research and experimentation should not be taken lightly and should only be allowed when it was for the benefit of the same embryo.

Mr Puli spoke about the importance of regulating biotechnology. He said society could not deny infertile couples from fulfilling their wish of having children. However, the process should be guided by enforceable ethical procedures, which safeguard both the interest of the couple as well as the rights of the child from his first moments of existence.

He said Parliament should not remove the possibility of eliminating serious diseases which are still incurable. But he stressed that one should not be prepared to sacrifice human life for this.

One could not deny that progress in biotechnology was "marvellous", especially in the sectors of genetics and assisted procreation. However, bioethics had no intrinsic value. It was the way in which it was used that made it good, bad or immoral.

Therefore, he said, if biotechnology remained unregulated, it could become a threat, even to the dearest human fundamental rights.

During the recent House committee meetings, where the issue of bioethics was discussed, it was clear that regulation in this sector was minimal, almost inexistent in Malta. It was clear that decisions in this sector should not only be guided by the individual's conscience or professionals' auto-regulation.

"Are we ready to allow genetic diagnosis for selection in the sectors of education and employment? Are we ready to allow insurance companies to request genetic tests on which they would base their premiums? Above all, are we ready to sacrifice our children's innocent and vulnerable lives for the medical benefits of others?"

Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera spoke about the legal aspect when protecting the unborn child. She said in Malta any type of abortion is illegal and both the mother and the person who carried out the abortion were liable for punishment.

The protection of life has been ingrained in local culture for more than two centuries, with the Maltese people having drawn up a declaration back in 1802 stating that no man had authority over another's life.

She said that although some people thought that abortion would have to be made legal in Malta following European Union accession, this was not the case.

The magistrate said the fact that even an unborn child has rights was witnessed by a court case in 2000. A Maltese man had filed a case to stop his Moroccan girlfriend - who was pregnant with his child - from being deported because he feared she might have had to abort the baby when she arrived in her country because of religious and cultural beliefs. In the end, the court decided that the woman could remain in Malta.

Consultant psychiatric nurse Martin Ward said that since the unborn child was linked to the mother, what the mother was feeling was also transmitted to the baby, including stress. He spoke about the importance of reducing the mother's stress as much as possible during pregnancy.

The well-being of the child was discussed from a medical point of view by consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Albert P. Scerri.

A different issue was explored by Anna Maria Vella from Agenzija Sedqa, who takes care of female substance abusers. Dr Vella said every year there are between 15 and 20 drug users who become pregnant.

"We first need to find out what drugs the woman is using and how much she is using. It is also important to know what kind of lifestyle she has - whether she is eating and sleeping," she said.

Dr Vella said there are many cases when the mother herself was not aware that she was pregnant, even at the late stages, since opiates often hide the symptoms of pregnancy. She said the aim of the Substance Abuse Unit was to help the mother abstain from all harmful substances and instead they are put on methadone.

"Methadone is safe throughout pregnancy and the pregnant woman should not be advised to stop taking methadone," she said, adding that when the baby is born, s/he is monitored for withdrawal symptoms, given the appropriate amount of methadone and is later weaned off it.

"When the mother takes a stable daily dose of methadone, she usually abstains from taking other drugs. But if she is encouraged to reduce methadone, she is more likely to take other drugs."

Dr Vella stressed that there was no relationship between the amount of methadone taken by the mother and the amount the baby needs.

It takes three to six months for the baby to be completely weaned off methadone and Dr Vella said it is recommended to the mother to also detoxify herself during the time. However, she said, few mothers opt to do the programme because they would not be able to be with their baby. She said Malta did not yet have a rehabilitation programme for the mothers and their children.

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