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Proposed Amendment to Strictest Anti-Abortion Laws in the EU

Malta’s government has proposed new legislation that would ease the country’s strict abortion laws and allow the termination of pregnancies in cases where “the mother’s life or health” are at serious risk.


Malta’s abortion law is currently the severest in the whole European Union, with the procedure being a criminal offence in all circumstances including rape, incest, or if the parent’s life is at risk. Malta has become one of the few Western nations with a total ban on abortion after the Republic of San Marino decriminalised the procedure last year and other pre-dominantly Catholic countries, such as Ireland and Italy, have legalised it.

At the moment, individuals who undergo abortions in Malta could face a maximum of three years in prison. Doctors who administer abortions in Malta face a maximum of four years and a permanent revocation of their licence. Between 2015 and 2020, three people were investigated for alleged abortions, however none were arraigned. Despite the strict rules, it is estimated that some 400 Maltese people travel overseas to have an abortion and another 200 purchase abortion pills each year. As a consequence of the pandemic, in 2021 more than 350 telemedicine services were ordered to Malta, supplied by organisations such as Women on Web and Women Help Women.

Following backflash from a recent case where an American tourist was refused a life-saving abortion in Malta, the ruling Labour Party plans to introduce a new clause in the country’s criminal code that would allow for the termination of a pregnancy if the parent’s health is in jeopardy. Performing an abortion under these circumstances would no longer be considered a crime. The proposed Maltese legislation does not provide an exception for rape or incest.

Back in July, Andrea Prudente, then 16 weeks pregnant, was admitted to hospital whilst on holiday in Malta due to severe bleeding. She was explicitly told that her baby had a zero chance of survival. Despite an extreme risk of haemorrhage and infection, doctors at Malta’s Mater Dei Hospital would not perform the abortion due to the country’s total ban on the medical procedure. Prudente was diagnosed with a ruptured membrane and an umbilical cord protruding from her cervix yet was informed there was nothing Maltese doctors could do whilst the foetus still had a heartbeat. After days of waiting, Prudente was evacuated to Spain where she was allowed an abortion.

After the incident, two separate judicial protests were filed in Maltese courts demanding the legalisation of abortion, including one by the Women’s Rights Foundation, which asserted that the country’s absolute ban violates the fundamental human rights of Maltese individuals of child-bearing age. The second was filed by Doctors for Choice, a non-profit organisation of medical professionals advocating for safe and legal access to reproductive services including abortion.

Doctors for Choice and the Women’s Rights Foundation joined forces in 2019, along with other Maltese NGOs such as Moviment Graffiti, to unite as The Voice for Choice — pushing for access to safe and legal abortion in Malta. The coalition views abortion as an issue of sexual and reproductive health and they emphasise that abortion in Malta is already an established social fact and not regulating it safely has adverse consequences on citizens’ health and their basic rights in society.

Voice for Choice’s efforts to create a platform for debate on the issue has faced criticism. Politicians have often used a staunch stance on abortion to appeal to conservative voters in their parties and constituencies. The loudest anti-abortion rally has been from the Catholic Church, which still wields significant influence in Malta. Following the announcement of the proposed abortion clause, Archbishop of Malta Charles Scicluna issued an open letter condemning the bill. He argued that removing the risk of criminal action against doctors who perform an abortion to save a patient's life would allow people to terminate their pregnancies for any health issue. He wrote, “Human life should not be killed to safeguard somebody's health.” The open letter was to be read out in churches across Malta last weekend.

President of Malta, George Vella, told close associates that he would consider resigning if the bill was not amended. Although he has yet to make an official statement, Vella did state before he took office that he would never sign an abortion law, and all new bills require the President’s signature. Former President Mary Louise Coleiro-Preca led a protest organised by the Life Network Foundation in Malta’s capital on Sunday 4 December calling to halt government plans to amend the anti-abortion laws. 20,000 people were said to be in attendance as they placed a large picture of an unborn baby outside the office of Malta's Prime Minister. The protestors argue that the wording of the amendments is so vague that it will lead to abortion being steadfastly introduced into Maltese law. Coleiro-Preca spoke at the protests; "Those unborn children could be doctors who save us from a future Covid, a future scientist. Above all we see future Maltese.”

Malta had previously been criticized by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, over its abortion policy. In a February report, Mijatović said that “unimpeded access to sexual and reproductive health care” was critical to preserving individuals’ rights to health and to be free from discrimination: “Malta’s blanket ban on abortions puts these rights at significant risk.”

Information about abortion is difficult to come by in Malta and often prejudiced, even within the national health service. Local pregnancy support services are often run by anti-choice groups and there have been reports of women being hindered from accessing abortion. For example, Life Line Malta and Dar Tgħanniqa t'Omm are operated by the local anti-choice organisation Life Network Foundation Malta, while HOPE is operated by Gift of Life Malta.

Comprehensive abortion care is included in the list of essential health care services published by WHO in 2020. Inaccessibility of quality abortion care risks violating a range of human rights, including the right to life; the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the right to benefit from scientific progress and its realization; the right to decide freely and responsibly on the number, spacing and timing of children; and the right to be free from torture, and inhumane, degrading treatment and punishment.

Unsafe abortions are among the leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity worldwide (4.7–13.2%). The legal status of abortion does not affect the number pregnant women and people seeking one, but the prevalence of unsafe abortions is greatest in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Where abortion is illegal or highly restricted, individuals resort to unsafe means to end unwanted pregnancies, including self-inflicted abdominal and bodily trauma, ingestion of dangerous chemicals, self-medication with a variety of drugs, and reliance on unqualified abortion providers.

While it is not directly mentioned in International and European legal standards, access to safe and legal abortion care represents an intrinsic part of country’s human rights obligations. A variety of human rights standards imposes requirements in the field of abortion care. In 2016 and 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled on two cases concerning women who were not allowed to interrupt their pregnancy in Ireland after they discovered that the foetus they were carrying had a fatal impairment. In both cases, it held that the women had faced inhumane treatment and that Ireland was therefore obliged to reform its laws on abortion to establish effective, timely and accessible procedures for the termination of pregnancy.

Access to safe and legal abortion care thus forms an integral part of the right to health. In 2013 and 2016, the European Committee of Social Rights concluded that Italy had violated this right because “women seeking access to abortion services continue to face substantial difficulties in obtaining access to such services in practice, notwithstanding the provisions of the relevant legislation”.

Decriminalization of abortion caters to the medical needs and ultimately the basic human rights of women and pregnant people. The decriminalisation of abortion would not render the procedure unregulated, but it would rather provide pregnant individuals medical assistance without the risk of penalisation under the Criminal Code. Although the proposed amended bill in Malta is only a small step on the path towards decriminalisation, it marks a shift in Maltese government legislation whereby political issues are not prioritised over basic medical needs.


Abortion Assistance in Malta:

Abortion Support Network :

Safe Abortion Malta:

Family Planning and Pregnancy Advisory Service:

Doctors for Choice:



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