Supporting Bill 28

The amendment to the Criminal Code forming part of Bill 28 which Parliament started discussing on Monday 28 November codifies the existing practice at the state hospital. It defines the necessary legal framework for therapeutic abortion. It does not introduce the practice of therapeutic abortion: this has been the practice for quite some time.

The Bill avoids use of the term “abortion”, using instead the term “termination of a pregnancy”, which as we are all aware has exactly the same meaning!

Legislation to date relative to therapeutic abortion is not clear at this point in time. On this basis ADPD-The Green Party was the only political party which tackled the matter during the March 2022 electoral campaign, including a whole section on sexual health and reproductive rights in the electoral manifesto. We went much further than that, emphasising the need for the decriminalisation of abortion too.

The Labour Party in Government, which has been practically silent on the matter during the electoral campaign, has now decided to act, taking a minimalist approach. It has limited itself to ensuring that current practice is protected at law. While this is definitely not enough it is a welcome first step and deserves our full support, even though there is still room for improvement in the proposed text of the proposal.

The Labour Party is right in saying that it is not introducing abortion through Bill 28: therapeutic abortion has been here and practised for some time even in the state hospital. Consequently, the approval of Bill 28 as presented will, in practice, not change anything, it will merely recognise the current state of affairs. As a result, it will give peace of mind to medical practitioners in state hospitals as their current modus operandi would be clearly spelt out in the law, as it should be.

In a sense the current fierce and at times emotional debate on abortion is much ado about nothing. It has however resulted in the local conservative forces speaking from the same hymn book. The opposition to the Bill is primarily twofold. On one hand there is the PN official stand which, together with Archbishop Scicluna has adopted the position paper published by a group of academics. In practice they seek to limit permissible medical interventions to cases of a threat to the life of the pregnant woman, eliminating health issues as justification. On the other hand, exponents of the fundamentalist Christian right, including a minority in the PN rank and file oppose the Bill in principle.

Put simply, the debate identifies three different proposals. The first, proposed by the Labour government in Bill 28, enshrines in law the current practice and places the onus on the medical profession to decide each case on its own merits. The second, supported by the PN opposition and the Church hierarchy seeks to substantially limit the discretion of the medical profession in Bill 28 primarily by eliminating health and mental health considerations. The third position brought forward by the fundamentalist Christian faction is in total opposition to all that is being proposed.

During the Parliamentary debate held this week I took note of the various positive contributions, in particular those of Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, Parliamentary Secretary Rebecca Buttigieg and Opposition spokespersons Joe Giglio and Mario Demarco. Of particular note, in my view, is Fearne’s reference to the hospital’s standard operating procedures. It is being emphasised that these procedures do in fact address important aspects of the criticism aired during the debate, in particular that decisions taken by the medical profession relative to therapeutic abortion procedures should be taken by two or more professionals in order to ensure that no professional shoulders the decision alone. This, I understand is already standard practice!

There is always room for improvement in the proposed text of the Bill as indicated in the level-headed approach of Joe Giglio during the Parliamentary debate on Wednesday. As I emphasised in my article last week it would have been much better if Government had embarked on an exercise of public consultation before presenting the Bill. There would definitely have been more time to listen to and digest the different views. A valid point which was also emphasised by Mario Demarco.

In this scenario, even though viewing it as just a first step, which can be improved: without any shadow of doubt, ADPD supports the proposal put forward by Bill 28 in principle.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 4 December 2022