Eleventh hour demands raised by several medical organisations on a proposed equality law, due to fears it could open a back door to abortion, are Franky concerning, the parliamentary secretary for equality has said.
“What concerns me is the fact that proposals which would effectively deny people their right to access health services are being proposed under the guise of safeguarding the medical profession from abortion,” Rosianne Cutajar told Lovin Malta.
“Let me be clear: abortion is illegal in Malta, and therefore, no one can be forced to provide it. Therefore, no one can be sued if they do not provide it.”
“This government will not compromise on the principle of equality for all. It is the backbone of our belief system, and the Equality Bill will further strengthen the legal framework in this regard.”
Originally proposed five years ago, the Equality Act envisages a strong and all-encompassing law to clamp down on discrimination across the board, from employment and education to access to goods and services.
Discrimination will be covered on the grounds of age, belief, creed or religion, colour, ethnic or national origin, race, disability, family responsibilities or pregnancy, family or civil status, gender expression or gender identity, genetic features, health status, language, nationality, political opinion, property, sex or sex characteristics, sexual orientation, and social origin.
A quasi-judicial Equality Commission will be set up, with the power to issue fines of up to €10,000 in compensation to people who breach the law.
Meanwhile, the government will have to ensure that at least 40% of appointments for officially designated bodies are women and at least 40% are men.
The proposed law also includes several exception clauses to ensure every potential case is taken in context and to prevent people getting fined for discrimination for legitimate practices.
For example, banks and insurance companies will be allowed to deny services to people they deem to pose a financial risk and schools will be allowed to enforce policies among their staff based on the educational establishment’s ethos.
With the bill now at committee stage in Parliament, the Medical Council has called for a new exception clause specifically referring to medical professionals.
“A health care professional is under no obligation to participate in any procedure or administer treatment, when such professional considers these objectionable as a matter of conscience and declares his objection beforehand. The health department is obliged to ensure widespread availability of information pertaining to all legal health services including a list of healthcare workers or institutions providing such services as well as their contact information.”
Their statement was backed by several medical organisations, from the Association of Private Family Doctors to the Association of Surgeons of Malta.
However, their proposed amendment doesn’t specify what treatments medical professionals should be able to refuse “as a matter of conscience”, raising the spectre that it could legalise discrimination within the medical field.
Meanwhile, the Malta Medical Association didn’t sign the original statement but warned the law could have the unintended side effect of legitimising abortion and euthanasia.
“Let’s say a patient asks a doctor for a euthanasia pill or for advice on how to get an abortion and the doctor refuses because it goes against his morals. According to the proposed law, the doctor will risk getting fined €10,000… a consequences which goes beyond the intended scope of the law,” MAM President Martin Balzan said.
“The law’s stated objective is anti-discrimination, something which is long established in medical ethics. If a doctor discriminates against a patient because of his ethnicity or sexual orientation, the Medical Council can already sanction him.”
Pro-choice doctors’ lobby Doctors for Choice has urged the government to reject this proposed amendment, warning it would have a very negative effect on minorities accessing healthcare.
“If our government believes in equality, it must reject this amendment,” it said. “Professionals, doctors included, must not be given a right to discriminate and refuse to offer care to minorities.”