Malta's bishops urge lawmakers not to back 'abortion law'

FILE PHOTO: People walk outside the Church of St Catherine of Italy in Valletta

VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta's bishops have urged lawmakers not to back a bill now before parliament which they view as opening the door to abortion in the only European Union country that does not permit it under any circumstances.

The government-sponsored bill would remove the risk of criminal action against doctors when a pregnancy is terminated in circumstances when the mother's life or health are in danger.

Although current law provides for imprisonment for up to four years in such cases, no one has ever been prosecuted.

In an open letter, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and bishops Joseph Galea Curmi and Anton Teuma said that, in referring to "health", the new law if enacted would allow terminations in situations in which it was not the mother's life that was in danger, but rather her health.

The law therefore proposes that health can be safeguarded by killing a new human life, the statement said. "This means abortion ... Human life should not be killed to safeguard somebody's health."

Prime Minister Robert Abela's centre-left government, which enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament, has said the bill is about allowing medical intervention only when a mother's health or life is in serious danger.

The centre-right opposition objects to the legislation, while President George Vella, according to the Times of Malta daily, told close associates he would consider resigning if the bill was not amended.

His office has declined comment but Vella - who is from Abela's party - said before he took office that he would never sign an abortion law. All bills need the president's signature to become law.

The move to reform abortion rules comes after a U.S. tourist, Andrea Prudente, was refused a request in June to terminate a non-viable pregnancy after she began to bleed profusely. Her doctors said her life was at risk and she was eventually transferred to Spain where she had an abortion.

In September, Prudente sued the Malta government, calling on the courts to declare that banning abortion in all circumstances breaches human rights. The case has not yet come to trial.

(Reporting by Christopher Scicluna; Editing by Mark Heinrich)