Life-threatening pregnancies ‘extremely rare to come by’
Thirty years ago Malta toughened its abortion laws, making it illegal even in cases of life-threatening pregnancies. But Maltese doctors tell Christian Peregin that women are not being forced to sacrifice their lives, as gynaecologists can work within the limits of the laws.
With a population of under half a million, life-threatening pregnancies are extremely rare to come by in Malta, especially in a world of exponential progress.
“If statistically there is one such pregnancy in every 50,000 cases, it would take 12 years for a Maltese doctor to be faced with it,” says one gynaecologist.
Doctors who perform any type of abortion risk being banned from the profession and put behind bars for four years.
But in most cases of life-threatening pregnancies, gynaecologists can work within the limits of the Maltese laws: either by inducing an early delivery or giving the woman the treatment she needs regardless of its impact on the foetus.
Donald Felice, president of the Malta College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says that throughout his 40 years of experience he never witnessed any “dramatic” cases where a woman’s life depended on an abortion.
“If a woman needs treatment, like chemotherapy, we will administer it and let the baby take its chances, even if it is likely that the unborn child could die as a secondary effect,” he says.
In cases where the unborn child has to be removed from the womb, gynaecologists are allowed to induce early deliveries as long as the baby is not younger than 24 weeks and the chances of survival are not nil.
There could be cases where the two methods are not enough to save a woman’s life and an abortion could be necessary but, according to Dr Felice, these cases are “extremely rare” and are being made even more uncommon by the advances in medicine and technology.
So women are generally not forced down the path of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, who famously opted to die to ensure her fourth child lived, even though her story is taught to many teenage girls in schools.
But a recent judgment by the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland has highlighted the issue, which remains deeply taboo on the island.
Ireland was admonished for forcing a sick woman to seek an abortion abroad even though the pregnancy could have triggered a return of her cancer. The court found the woman’s case fell within the Irish Constitution’s exception of allowing abortion only in cases of life-threatening pregnancies. Former ECHR judge Giovanni Bonello later argued the case had “no relevance” to Malta because the island did not allow abortion in any circumstance.
However, human rights lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia said the European Court’s decision raised pertinent questions about the fate of Maltese women who could find themselves in similar circumstances.
“The message seems to be that even if there is a risk to her life the woman will not be given any assistance or even advice related to termination of pregnancy. Essentially, her life is at risk and that is it,” Dr Comodini Cachia said.
When both major political parties were asked whether they were open to a discussion about abortion in such cases, each gave vague replies.
The Nationalist Party said it had “consistently adopted and continues to adopt a pro-life policy, which meant it was against abortion”.
“The recent judgment delivered by the European Court of Human Rights confirms there is no fundamental human right to abortion,” a PN spokesman said.
And the Labour Party said: “We stand by Judge Giovanni Bonello’s interpretation of the ECHR ruling that the said judgment has no relevance at all to Malta.”