Maltese lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation to ease the strictest abortion laws in the European Union, but pro-choice campaigners had withdrawn their support, saying last-minute changes make the legislation “vague, unworkable and even dangerous.”
The original bill allowing women access to abortion if a pregnant woman’s life or health is in danger was hailed as a step in the right direction for Malta, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation. It was introduced last fall after an American tourist who miscarried had to be airlifted off the Mediterranean island nation to be treated.
Under the amendments, however, a woman whose health is at grave risk — even if it could lead to death — can receive access to an abortion only after three specialists consent. The legislation approved Wednesday allows a doctor to terminate a pregnancy without further consultation only if the mother’s life is at immediate risk.
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Thousands of Maltese protested against the law during demonstrations in December. The governing Labor Party, which submitted the original bill, supported the amendments, while the opposition swung in support after the changes.
The Voices for Choice Coalition Malta last week withdrew its support for the bill, calling the amendments “a betrayal.”
The coalition of 14 pro-choice groups said the requirement for three specialists for women whose health is at risk is “unworkable and dangerous,” and cautioned that even in cases where a woman’s life is at risk, “it is highly likely that doctors will seek authorization due to fear of prosecution.”
Malta is the only one of the EU’s 27 nations until now has prohibited abortion for any reason, with laws making it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to have the procedure or up to four years to assist a woman in having an abortion.
The law is rarely enforced, with the last known case of someone being jailed dating from 1980. Still, a woman was charged under the anti-abortion law earlier this month, though not jailed.
Malta had been one of the few Western states that had a total ban on abortion, after the republic of San Marino decriminalized the procedure last year and other overwhelmingly Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy have legalized it.
Poland last year introduced a near-total ban on abortion, except when a woman’s life or health is endangered or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest. The proposed Maltese legislation doesn’t provide an exception for rape or incest.