Malta is one of the last countries in the world where abortion is illegal, but pro-abortion activists are trying to change that. In May, Marlene Farrugia, an independent member of the Maltese parliament, made global headlines when she proposed a bill that would decriminalize abortion in Malta. It was an unexpected move. Abortion activists had been alerted ahead of time and gathered outside parliament with signs and banners; a social media campaign followed. But thus far, Maltese politicians have rejected Farrugia’s proposal.
Malta is a central Mediterranean archipelago between Sicily and the coast of North Africa. It is one of the most Catholic countries in the world; Roman Catholicism is the official state religion, although the number of Maltese who attend church regularly has been steadily declining. With a population of just over 500,000, Malta is the smallest nation in the European Union—and the only nation in the E.U. where abortion is completely banned (the criminal code prohibition dates back to 1724). About 300 Maltese women seek abortions outside the country each year.
Robert Abela, Malta’s Labour prime minister, is publicly pro-life; his party has argued that the bill will actually stifle meaningful debate. The Nationalist Party has also expressed opposition. It seems likely that Farrugia’s proposal was intended to spark a discussion that would force politicians to take positions and lay the groundwork for future success. Farrugia has already said that if politicians refuse to discuss it, they should refer the issue to a citizen’s assembly, as happened in the Republic of Ireland.
President George Vella has also taken a stand. “I will never sign a bill that involves the authorization of murder,” he said on May 17. Vella, a former medical doctor, has had a distinguished career. He has served as deputy prime minister and as minister for foreign affairs twice (from 1996 to 1998 and again from 2013 to 2017). When the governing Labour Party nominated him for the presidency in 2019, the opposition Nationalist Party also supported him, and he was formally sworn in on April 4, 2019.
Vella, who is 79, told me in a recent interview that Malta’s pro-life laws were common when he entered the field of medicine—very few European countries had legalized abortion yet. His years of medical training strengthened his convictions; he discovered more “about the amazing transformations happening in the body and the uterus in all stages of pregnancy.” Vella takes his Hippocratic Oath, in which he swore “to protect life under any circumstance,” seriously. He carried those convictions and that oath with him into public service. When a journalist asked him recently if there were any circumstances in which abortion might be permitted, Vella replied: “You [are] either killed or not killed. There can be no half death.”
“I would be the first one to give anybody the right to dissent, to have the freedom to act as one wishes,” he told me. “However, what we are talking about with this issue is something unique. We are talking about a life and we are not talking only about the pregnant woman’s body....We are talking about another human being, with his or her unique set of chromosomes, and his or her complete and distinct identity….We are talking in euphemistic terms about killing a baby.”
Vella’s position was well-known when he became president. If pro-abortion legislation were passed, the president would not have the necessary powers to veto it. Vella says he would resign in protest. “I had made it quite clear and public that if during my presidency, parliament passes any bill in favor of abortion, I would have strong moral objections to ratifying and signing it, meaning I would have to just resign and vacate the presidency.”
If forced to take this stand, Vella will be in sparse but distinguished company. In 2012, Hereditary Prince Alois of Liechtenstein announced prior to an abortion referendum that he would exercise his royal prerogative to veto any change in legislation that relaxed his nation’s strict laws on abortion. Activists claimed that his intervention produced the eventual result of 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent in favor of keeping abortion illegal; a follow-up referendum in 2013 on whether the prince's power to veto future referendums be limited or removed resulted in a second bruising defeat for abortion activists, with 76 percent of Liechtenstein citizens voting to uphold the prince’s right to a royal veto. Abortion remains largely illegal in Liechtenstein.
“Principles come before anything else,” Vella told me. “My appeal to all politicians and decision makers is to be honest with themselves if faced with such draft legislation....I advise them to keep in mind all the way that legislating about increasing taxes and approving budgets is one thing—legislating about whether to approve the killing of a baby in utero is something completely different and carries immense responsibility which should not be treated lightly. I strongly hope that Malta remains pro-life.”
For the time being, at least, it is likely that Malta will retain this essential part of her national character. No prominent political party in Malta has adopted a pro-abortion position, and despite a vociferous few, little support exists for decriminalizing abortion. A Maltese pro-life doctor told me that for now, Malta’s pro-life regime appears to be safe, “albeit under a constant bombardment.” But as we have seen in other once proudly pro-life nations, from Northern Ireland to Argentina, pro-lifers can take nothing for granted.
Both Malta’s president and prime minister oppose abortion; Vella, at least, is prepared to sacrifice his career over the issue. The unborn are safe in Malta—for the moment.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.