The bad news is Marlene’s abortion Bill could be dead in the water (hope I’m wrong)

Marlene Farrugia handed a grenade to the parties controlling the House Business Committee and asked them to take out the safety pin. All odds against

A MaltaToday cartoon by Mark Scicluna from 19 June 2016
A MaltaToday cartoon by Mark Scicluna from 19 June 2016

Not that this newspaper has nothing but the utmost respect for Malta’s pro-choice movement and campaigners, but fears that Marlene Farrugia’s abortion decriminalisation Bill could bomb must be addressed.

The reality is that abortion is a wedge issue for both Labour and the Nationalist parties, which are the two parties in the House who control the agenda. You have to ask whether any of these two parties want to be debating an abortion decriminalisation bill in the House in what might also be an election year?

Farrugia’s motion does not get automatically debated in the House: it will be the House Business Committee to decide whether this Bill gets tabled for a reading. The members of the committee are deputy prime minister Chris Fearne, justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis, Labour Whip Glenn Bedingfield, Nationalist Whip Robert Cutajar, and PN deputy leader David Agius.

The PN on Wednesday evening issued a statement saying it would not support the decriminalisation of abortion: so far, so PN (the party has a long history of weaponizing this issue to kill their political opponents). No immediate statement came from Labour, which does host muted pro-choice voices, yet are in the minority. Still, the party moved forward on a host of sexual health rights and on paper, makes it more likely to approve some sort of debate.

But what benefit is this Bill to any of the parties?

The University academic and former journalist Prof. Carmen Sammut commented on Farrugia’s ‘historic surprise’ but said she had employed “wrong tactics, wrong timing”.

“Despite her good intentions, she’s done the pro-choice movement no favours in the long run. It is a private members’ Bill with no strategy… the political and parliamentary agenda is already packed as it is up to the legislature’s end.”

Indeed, Labour is already occupied with its White Paper on cannabis decriminalisation and liberalisation, and a problematic reform to liberalise prostitution. Those are tricky enough reforms. Does it want to risk public antipathy on such a taboo subject as abortion?

Even the Nationalists have their own Bills to push forward in the House. Why support a Bill from the former Democratic MP whom Simon Busuttil allowed (rightly or wrongly) to piggy-back on the 2017 PN electoral list, get elected (on her own steam), but then sort of fell out of love with Adrian Delia, and even left the PD…?

The other option would be to take the Bill to the plenary, tear it to pieces, reaffirm their pro life credentials with the electorate, give the independent MP (who is not even running in the next election) a good what-for and basically send the message to party liberals and the pro-choice movement that there is no place for abortion in Maltese society.

“There doesn’t even seem to be any support within her own party, which recently declared itself pro-life,” Prof. Sammut points out. She is right: when was Marlene Farrugia ever pro choice? The PD’s stance, before its merger with Green Party Alternattiva Demokratika, was pro-life: “We would not want pregnancies to be terminated because the parents, and particularly the woman, face a bleak future without any adequate moral, psychological, material and social support... we are in favour of nurturing a society where women are treated fairly in a society with zero tolerance towards violence and abuse.” That’s from 2019.

Or check out this Facebook video clip of Marlene Farrugia from 21 May 2017, right before the election: she is accusing Labour of aiming to introduce abortion. “You cannot give a civil right to somebody who wants to kill a living being,” she said.

And when the Women’s Rights Foundation filed a judicial protest against the ban of emergency contraception, Marlene Farrugia did say she wanted an informed debate. But she also posted a screenshot of a news item from Catholic pro-life website, describing the pill was abortive. Farrugia, a dentist, was even against Labour’s plans to introduce embryo freezing. “The right to life is the principle of it all. All other rights count for nothing if we cannot be in favour of every human bring to live and make the choices we were allowed to do by living. There are various methods of avoiding pregnancy. In the case of rape, one crime is not extinguished by another crime.”

So even without this motion making it to the plenary, Labour could easily tear into Farrugia’s credentials. How does the one-time anti-divorce, pill-sceptic, anti-IVF MP get to table a Bill to decriminalise abortion?

“Without a clear-cut strategy, Marlene will get the two large parties to debate internally, against their will, on the eve of an election that will certainly mean they will push aside such a divisive issue, even if there are those who want a sober debate,” Prof. Sammut said on Facebook. Such people include Labour MEP Alfred Sant, who welcomed the growing debate on abortion, stating the time of shaming people who are pro-choice must stop; possibly European Commissioner and former equality minister Helena Dalli, and perhaps Labour deputy leader for party affairs Daniel Micallef, who welcomes a safe space for discussing the issue.

“The Bill will probably be shelved for decades because we’ll be saying ‘the Maltese are not ready for this’. And indeed there are aspects of discrimination that deserve to be understood and discussed without any delay. Wrong tactics, wrong timing,” Prof. Sammut said.

And indeed there is parliamentary precedent of sorts here: when Joe Brincat, as an independent MP who had broke off with Labour in the 1990s, presented a private members’ Bill to legislate for divorce back in the 1990s, the Bill was never debated, dying a natural death with the end of the legislature. Labour was then in Opposition, and it took years for divorce to return to the House.

The man who did that, Marlene Farrugia’s ex-husband Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, was a Nationalist MP on the warpath with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. The PN had just a single-seat majority, won in 2008 on the back of an exhausting campaign defending Pullicino Orlando himself over the Mistra land scandal. After leaving him out in the cold, JPO hit back with the divorce bill.

But he did have his parliamentary vote to threaten Gonzi with. Now that was leverage.