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Malta Passes Law Allowing Abortions in Cases of Life-Threatening Risks: A Controversial Step Forward

Initially, Malta was the sole European state with a total abortion ban. But on Wednesday, June 28, 2023, Maltese lawmakers passed Bill 28, allowing abortions in cases where the woman’s life is seemingly at risk.

The legislation was formulated in November 2022 following an incident involving an American tourist who was denied a potentially life-saving abortion after experiencing a miscarriage in her 16th week of pregnancy. The woman had to be evacuated from Malta to receive the necessary medical treatment.

Originally, Bill 28 legalized abortions for women whose life or health are in danger. However, due to the opposition from anti-abortion activists, concerns were raised about the broad definition of ‘health’. Consequently, the law was modified to permit abortion solely for women facing a risk of death, requiring consent from a three-doctor medical panel. The panels will consist of two gynaecologists or obstetricians, with one of them being the qualified professional responsible for performing the termination of pregnancy. In addition, there will be a third expert in a relevant health-related field concerning the health issue affecting the woman.

In cases where there is an immediate risk to the mother’s life, doctors will be allowed to terminate the pregnancy without consulting the specialist panel. The legislation does not provide exceptions for cases of rape or incest. While the original draft of the law was considered a step in the right direction, the second version of Bill 28 lost the support of most progressive groups.

Amnesty International’s Europe Researcher Elisa de Pieri stated, “It is deeply disappointing that the government has chosen to backtrack from last year’s proposal to decriminalize abortion on health grounds.” She also criticized the three-doctor medical panel, affirming that “requiring the approval of three specialists before access to an abortion could result in fatal delays.” De Pieri added that doing so may “discourage doctors from putting forward the case, which could also have fatal consequences.”

Moreover, Voices for Choice, a pro-choice Maltese group, referred to the amendments as “a betrayal.” The group stated that the law is “vague, unworkable, and even dangerous, and will lead to vulnerable pregnant people being left permanently disabled or dead.” Furthermore, the previous complete ban on abortions was rarely enforced, which means that the Bill 28 will actually make abortions less accessible.  

In fact, under the previous legislation in Malta, women who underwent abortions were subject to fines and imprisonment for a maximum of three years. Doctors who prescribed and provided abortions could face a jail sentence of four years and the permanent revocation of their license to practice. However, this law was rarely enforced, with the last recorded instance of someone being imprisoned due to abortion dating back to 1980.

In conclusion, Malta became the final European country to lift its complete abortion ban. While the first version of Bill 28 provided extensive access to abortions, the one which was approved last Wednesday concerns exclusively women whose life is at risk.

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