President George Vella has told people close to him he is prepared to resign if parliament approves the amendment to the abortion law as proposed by the government.
Sources said he is mainly concerned the proposed change would allow for the termination of a pregnancy when a woman’s health, rather than her life, is deemed to be at risk. The bill is currently going through a second reading in parliament but the wording could still be amended at the committee stage in the coming days.
Any bill needs to be signed by the president before it becomes law. If Vella resigns, he would be the first president in history to do so.
Parliament will likely take a vote on the bill by December 19, before the Christmas recess.
Sources also said the president is concerned about the impact on this year’s edition of L-Istrina if he resigns.
As is tradition, the annual fundraising telethon is scheduled for December 26.
Vella, who is a doctor by profession, has been steadfast in his stance against abortion and, as president, he publicly insisted he would resign if parliament passed an abortion bill.
When, in May last year, former independent MP Marlene Farrugia tabled a private member’s bill to decriminalise abortion, Vella told Net News he opposed abortion without exceptions because there were “no half measures to murder”.
“You have either killed or not killed, there can be no half-death. I’m very clear, there are no ifs and buts,” he said at the time.
Vella has so far declined to make any public comment on his views on the amendment to the criminal code tabled in parliament last week. Questions sent to his office remained unanswered at the time of writing.
The government’s proposed amendment will free doctors and pregnant women from the threat of criminal prosecution if a pregnancy is terminated for health-related reasons.
It says no offence will be committed “when the termination of a pregnancy results from a medical intervention aimed at protecting the health of a pregnant woman suffering from a medical complication which may put her life at risk or her health in grave jeopardy”.
Prime Minister Robert Abela and Health Minister Chris Fearne have argued the amendments will simply codify an unofficial long-standing practice among doctors at Mater Dei Hospital into law.
The bill was on Tuesday welcomed by 108 MEPs, mostly from the socialist group and the greens, who described it as “an important first step” and said it would allow “life-saving terminations”.
However, the Nationalist Party and the pro-life movement, which includes former president Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, 44 organisations and almost 80 academics, have opposed the changes.
While they say they could accept an amendment that would allow abortion to save a woman if she risks dying, they fear the word “health” could be interpreted to allow abortion to be permitted even for women who experience mental health conditions that would not put their life at risk.
They propose an amendment limiting the procedure to when there is a “real and substantial risk of loss of the mother’s life”.
It is understood the president expressed a similar concern. However, it is not clear whether he would be prepared to sign the bill if it is amended to only allow termination of pregnancy to save a woman’s life.
When a law allowing doctors to perform genetic testing on IVF embryos was approved in parliament last July, Vella flew to the UK, avoiding having to sign the law. The bill was instead signed by his stand-in, Acting President Frank Bezzina, who was appointed to the role a few weeks earlier.
Vella was criticised for shirking his constitutional duty. It is understood he has decided not to do the same this time round, leaving himself with no option but to either sign the bill or resign.
The role of president as defined by the Maltese constitution gives the president no executive power, essentially obliging the holder to sign whichever law is approved by a democratically elected parliament. If Vella opts to resign, the bill could be signed by the acting president unless he chooses to wait for a new president’s appointment.
Vella was appointed president in April 2019 and his five-year term is due to run until April 2024.