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MALTATODAY 11 December 2022

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12 NEWS maltatoday | SUNDAY • 11 DECEMBER 2022 Quiet revolution: why Malta's timid reform could take it the Irish way IRELAND and Malta share a common history as staunch- ly Catholic former colonies of Protestant Great Britain, where a ban on abortion stood as a mark of exceptionalism as the rest of western Europe legalised abor- tion during the first 12 weeks of any pregnancy. Still, even before the Irish ref- erendum in 2018, Malta was the only EU member state to ban abortion in cases where the mother's life is at risk. But along with Malta, Ireland was the on- ly EU country to ban abortion in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormality. This will remain the case even if the amendment currently being discussed in the Maltese parliament, is approved. But unlike in Malta, the Irish abortion ban was also entrenched in its constitution. It was this constitutional provision, known as the Eighth Amendment, ap- proved in a referendum held in 1983, which obliged Ireland to hold referenda to request that ban to be watered down and ul- timately ditch it, paving the way for a law permitting abortion on demand during the early weeks of pregnancy. Malta came closest to imposing this kind of ban when in 2005, former Nationalist home affairs minister Tonio Borg toyed with the idea of entrenching the crim- inal provisions against abortion in the Maltese constitution. But these plans, chiefly supported by the Gift of Life lobby, were scup- pered thanks to Labour leader Alfred Sant's refusal to take the bait (he never supported the pe- tition) as well as unease amongst liberals in the Nationalist Party itself. Another notable difference is that the Irish ban had already been modified in 1992 and 2002 to allow abortion in cases where the life (but not the health of the mother) is threatened and where the mother is suicidal. And just as the Andrea Pru- dente case triggered the gov- ernment's amendment to allow the termination of a pregnancy when the life of the mother is in danger, it was real-life med- ical cases that triggered the re- forms which watered down and ultimately overturned Ireland's abortion ban. It was the case of a 14-year- old suicidal rape victim, who was initially prevented by the courts from travelling to Eng- land to terminate her pregnancy, that led to a court ruling which made a credible threat of suicide a ground for an abortion in Ire- land in 1992, a decision which was subsequently confirmed in subsequent referenda. And the campaign to liberalise abortion gathered momentum in 2012 when Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital after being refused an abortion during a miscarriage, despite having re- peatedly asked for a termination but was refused it because there was a foetal heartbeat. This ul- timately led to the 2018 ref- erendum in which two-thirds of voters rejected the ban, and the approval of a law which allows abortion on demand during the first 12 weeks of any pregnancy. Curiously, it is the amendment proposed by the Maltese gov- ernment which would prevent cases like that of Savita Halap- panavar from happening in Mal- ta. Considering that it was this case which triggered the massive shift of opinions in Ireland, the Maltese anti-abortionists may be shooting themselves in the foot by obstructing legislation which ultimately prevents the repetition of a similar case from occurring in Malta. The curious case of Leo Varadkar It was former Irish PM and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar who was the driving force behind the historic Irish referendum to re- move the constitutional ban on abortion in 2019, and the subse- quent approval of a liberal abor- tion law. This is particularly significant because Varadkar hails from the same political family as the Nationalist Party: the European People's Party. Varadkar had changed his views on this sensitive issue, evoking parallels with the evolu- tion of Robert Abela's thoughts on this subject, who had categor- ically excluded abortion three years ago. But interviewed on Xtra last month, Abela said that since he became Prime Minister around three years ago, he had met several women who under- went an abortion, either by trav- elling overseas or by ingesting a tablet. "Nowadays I observe the situation from the experiences of those 400 or so women who pass through this procedure every year," Abela said. Leo Varadkar also admitted that like many Irish he had expe- rienced a "fundamental shift" in his viewpoint. Pro-life till 2014 he changed his position to advo- cate making abortion legal in the first 12 months. "I still believe in life but I understand that there are circumstances under which pregnancies can't continue." He recalled the time when he was Minister for Health, and said that he came into contact with cases where "rather than [having] doctors make those de- cisions for the right medical rea- sons, those cases ended up in our courts". "That's why I'm of the view that the Eighth Amendment harms women," Varadkar said. He said that, through cam- paigning for a repeal of the ban, he was "asking Irish society to bring about a change… that we will trust women, and doctors". He also referred to the use of abortion pills that are bought online, noting that "abortion be- fore 12 weeks happens every day in Ireland" and that repealing the Eighth would make sure women can "have them safely and under medical supervision". The watershed referendum Although it did not come as a surprise that Ireland voted to re- peal the 1983 constitutional ban on abortion, nobody expected that two-thirds of the electorate would back this step. The scale of victory was rem- iniscent of Italy's own abortion referendum in 1981 when 68% Irish MP Carol Nolan urged an anti-abortion crowd in Valletta not to let Malta go down Ireland's route. But is Malta's pro-life movement deliberately taking the island down that route by opposing a timid reform to water down Malta's draconian abortion ban? asks James Debono In Ireland and Italy, what made a big difference was that an abstract moral principle was set against real-life stories and dilemmas faced by women in daily life The campaign to liberalise abortion gathered momentum in 2012 when Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital after being refused an abortion during a miscarriage, despite having repeatedly asked for a termination but was refused it because there was a foetal heartbeat

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