Valletta, Malta – A proposal to free abortion from crime in Malta has sparked a polarized debate on the issue that has long been considered taboo in the country, with the strictest abortion laws in the European Union.
Independent MP Marlene Farrugia surprised many this month when she tabled a bill in Parliament calling for the removal of passages in the Criminal Code, which jailed for up to three years for aborting or assisting a woman Punishment can occur. One.
Although the law rarely applies – the Interior Ministry says the last person jailed for abortion was in 1980 – supporters argue that it serves as a deterrent. Farrugia disagrees, stating that fear of retaliation and punishment prevents women from seeking counseling and help in Malta, where surveys suggest public opinion remains strongly against abortion.
“Making abortion illegal is not the same as promoting it,” Farrugia told the Associated Press. “By criminalizing women, stigmatizing the topic of abortion and keeping this discussion taboo, we are not saving lives and we are not helping to make abortion obsolete.”
The Catholic island nation has liberalized certain laws in recent years, divorcing 10 years ago and legalizing gay marriage in 2017.
The Bill is unlikely to move through Parliament, where one major party has declared itself against non-criminalization and another implied that it wants a debate in society rather than a vote in Parliament. But supporters say this has given a boost to the long-standing dialogue.
“People have woken up and many more have come out of the woodwork to openly declare themselves supporters of choice,” said Isabel Stabile of the abortion rights activist group Doctors for Choice.
While Farrugia insisted that his bill would not legalize abortion, simply remove the penalty for it, opponents disagree.
“We see abortion as a smokescreen until birth in Malta,” said Miriam Siberas, chairperson of the Life Network Foundation Malta’s anti-abortion group.
“If we really care about women, then we first let them be born,” said Siberus. “The law is for a reason. It is meant to protect all of us, especially the vulnerable.”
Abortion has been legalized in almost all European Union countries, although Poland tightened its abortion laws following a constitutional court ruling this year. The only exception allowed under Polish law is when the woman’s life or health is in danger or if the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest. In Malta, the law does not allow any exceptions, but in practice doctors apply the “moral principle of dual effect”, whereby fetal death is seen as an unintended consequence of efforts to save a woman’s life. Is, said Andrea Diben of the Women’s Rights Foundation in Malta.
The Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, has also weighed in on the discussion and given a homily in an indirect response to the notion of non-criminalizing abortion.
On May 13, he said, “The mother’s womb is dear and holy, that is where human life grows. Let us pray for the womb to remain the place of life, not the place where murder takes place.”
Doctors for Choice estimates that at least 300 women abort in Malta each year, either by traveling to countries where abortion is legal, including Britain, Italy or the Netherlands, or by receiving abortion pills.
A woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being prosecuted, told the AP that she came in contact with an international organization that helped her get abortion pills. She was concerned about any possible side effects from the pills, but said she would not immediately seek medical help for fear of being caught.
“If something goes wrong, you’re stuck,” she said. “People should be able to find the support they need in the country. Not everyone has the financial means to travel abroad. “
Farrugia, who describes herself as a “pro-life”, says she will continue to urge women “to use prevention and not terminate even when burdensome with unwanted pregnancy.”
“However, should they decide to terminate after undergoing support and counseling, then abortion needs to be highly regulated and protected.” he said. “Ultimately, no woman should be forced to continue with a pregnancy that she does not want.”