Malta set to ease strict anti-abortion laws

FILE PHOTO: Maltese Health Minister Chris Fearne looks on as he talks to the media after a fire destroyed part of a reception centre for migrants in Marsa

VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta is set to ease its strict anti-abortion laws by allowing the termination of pregnancies when the mother's life or health are at serious risk, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Wednesday.

The Mediterranean island is the only country in the European Union which has a complete ban on abortion and opinion polls consistently show a strong majority against it, mostly among older persons.

Fearne said legislative amendments which will be presented to parliament next week will tackle situations where a woman's life or health are at serious risk but the foetus is too young to be delivered.

At present, he told a news conference, a doctor is liable to imprisonment for up to four years if he terminates a pregnancy to save the mother's life. Women who end their pregnancy for the same reason were also liable to four years in jail.

"The choice isn't whether the mother or the baby survive. The choice here is whether the mother and baby both die, or whether the mother's life is saved," he said.

"We don’t believe that after going through this ordeal the woman should face the possibility of imprisonment."

The reform 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 the law banning abortion in all circumstances is in breach of human rights. The case has not yet come to trial.

(Reporting by Christopher Scicluna; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Angus MacSwan)