Last updated 4.40pm, adds PN statement -

A Health Department ‘policy’ that an unborn baby is not recognised as a person at law has raised questions on the government’s intentions on abortion, despite the Prime Minister’s repeated denials it had no plan to legalise such a practice.

On Thursday, the department categorically stated that it did not have any policy which favoured abortion.

Last year, the Department of Health refused to cover the travel expenses of a pregnant woman who required urgent treatment abroad.

Aggrieved by this reply, the woman sought redress with the Commissioner for Health within the Office of the Ombudsman. Nonetheless, the department did not budge on the matter, until it was warned that its policy ran counter to a civil court judgment given by Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff in 2015.

Details on this case were published in a report on Thursday by the Ombudsman which outlines some of the complaints filed in 2018. A copy of this report was presented by Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud to the Speaker of the House of Representatives Anġlu Farrugia.

It transpired that during her pregnancy the woman was told that she needed to go to the United Kingdom for treatment, after being diagnosed with a condition which would necessitate an urgent operation immediately after giving birth.

However, prior to departure, the parents were told by the Health Department they were not going to be reimbursed for the airfares, in line with an existing policy regulating cases of babies or children under 18 years. The reason was that at the moment of departure the baby had not yet been born.

A right to a clarification

After lodging a complaint with the Health Commissioner, the department agreed to pay the costs for the baby’s return flight from the UK to Malta, but not of the parents.

The commissioner disagreed with the decision on the grounds that the patient was the unborn baby, and consequently the parents’ airfares should have been covered as well. Eventually, the department accepted to reimburse the parents’ inbound flights.

Nonetheless, the department kept insisting it would not reimburse the outbound flights on the grounds that “a baby in utero is not recognised as a person at law”.

The response prompted the commissioner to remark that such interpretation made no sense at all.

If an unborn baby is not considered a person, on what does the surgeon operate when the ministry sends pregnant women for treatment abroad, before delivering their baby in Malta, the Commissioner questioned.

Furthermore, the Commissioner referred to a 2015 judgment in which Mr Justice Mintoff had ruled that an unborn baby had its rights and that once conceived he/she was not an object but a person.

It was only at this stage, the department accepted to cover the outbound flights as well.

In his remarks, Commissioner for Health Charles Messina described the Health Department’s categorical statement on the unborn child as “unacceptable”.

Apart from opening the entire contested issue of whether the human foetus had a right to the protection of law, it compromised the ongoing debate on whether abortion should or should not be entertained at any stage, he said.

This statement goes well beyond what various strata of the political spectrum to date publicly have stated to be their stand on this matter, the commissioner remarked.

He added that citizens had the right to a clarification on the matter and to be informed whether such a statement was the government’s official position.

The Commissioner also made some points on the 2015 judgment, saying it merited further study and debate as it correctly enunciated the existing legal position.

Mr Messina expressed his opinion that this judgment ran counter to the Health Department statement that the human foetus did not enjoy any rights.

No policy which favours abortion - health department

However, in a statement on Thursday, the Health Department said it had intervened to save the life of a yet unborn child by facilitating, organising and, paying for treatment abroad.

"How saving a newborn’s life can by any stretch of the imagination lead the Commissioner for Health to relate this episode to a discussion on abortion, which is the exact opposite of saving a life, escapes comprehensibility," it said.

The department insisted it did not have any policy which favoured abortion.

Commissioner for Health welcomes statement

The Commissioner for Health in a reaction told Times of Malta that he welcomed  the categorical statement by the Department for Health that it did not have any policy which favoured abortion. 

PN: Time to strengthen the rights of babies in the womb 

The Nationalist Party said the report was a wake-up call that the rights of babies in the womb need to be strengthened. 

Shadow minister Claudio Grech said the country needed to launch a process to ensure that the rights of the unborn were recognised, protected and improved so that there would be no legal grey areas.  

The very fact, as shown in this report, that the authorities were uncertain about whether an unborn baby was a person was a clear indication that the laws needed to be clarified. Once it was accepted by everyone that the start of life was conception, the baby's rights needed to be safeguarded from that point. 

The PN said it welcomed remarks by President George Vella on the value of life. Once there were no grounds for abortion, political parties and social partners should work together against abortion and towards making Malta a model EU state where the baby in the womb was given the dignity and protection it deserved. 

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