Abortion decriminalisation: the spectacular failure of our legislators

Ultimately, this is also an opportunity for our main political parties to show that they care about women in this country. The opportunity that, as things stand right now, they have squandered. More than squandered, they spectacularly failed

The response by our two major political parties on the abortion decriminalisation bill tabled by Honourable Marlene Farrugia was as pathetic as it was predictable.

It took the leader of the Nationalist Party only a couple of hours to backpedal from “We will discuss this internally with whomever wants to discuss with us and have our position in due time” to “We will NEVER support decriminalisation of abortion”. Talk about a record in flip-flopping. I dread to think who were those “whomever” people that made him change his stance in such short period of time.

It is even sadder that just a week after their new female candidate resigned from the party because she was berated for suggesting that the party should support free contraception, the leader of the Opposition now proposes free contraception and the morning after pill as an answer to the abortion issue. Another flip-flop, but this one digs deep into how uninformed, clueless, and patchy their response is. Reproductive and sexual health in this country needs a comprehensive vision and set of policies, and not an ad hoc soundbite solution that just scratches the surface.

Then there was the Labour Party response. If I could have rolled my eyes any further, they would have ended up at the back of my head. Stifling the debate? The only thing that is stifling is the audacity of the party’s brief statement that the bill is “stifling the debate”, whilst in the same breath refusing to debate it. How is that for an oxymoron? Even more bewildering is their statement that Parliament is not the place to debate this bill, but that the party will “listen”. If legal bills are not to be debated in the parliament, then where? This is an incredulous abdication of the duty of legislators to legislate. I must have snoozed in my constitutional law classes because I naïvely understood that members of parliament are legislators.

Yet, when it comes to having a vision and set of sexual and reproductive health policies, the Labour Party fares much better than its parliamentary counterpart. That is, the Labour Party from 40 years ago. In a vociferously written letter, published in Times of Malta on the 1st of June 1980, then not yet elected Leo Brincat, defended criticism of a newly decided resolution on the sexual and reproductive health polices of the Labour Party. These included provisions for family planning and sexual health clinics in Malta, better availability of contraception as well as unequivocally stating that the Labour Party in government will not treat women that have had abortions as criminals.

Brincat also stated that the Labour Party is against abortion, so they will implement these facts-based policies to prevent abortion from happening. By opening family planning clinics, the Labour government will “be merely honouring and recognising a human right”. It is almost as if a time traveller handed my organisation’s (Women’s Rights Foundation) position paper on reproductive health to Labour party officials that copied six out of seven policies we recommended.

So, wither, Labour party of today? What has happened to you?

Honourable mention goes to our political newcomers Volt for being the first fully pro-choice political party in Malta. Another honourable mention goes to ADPD, whose proposal on decriminalisation of and availability of abortion in limited circumstances is a step in the right direction. I will criticise them for not going far enough on another day, but right now, it is definitively a breath of fresh air.

The bottom line is that, when it comes to our main political parties in Parliament, their position can be at best be summed up as “PN as ready to fiddle whilst ignoring the core of the issue”, whilst “PL is ready to (Potentially? Eventually? Possibly? Maybe?) pretend to listen”.  Perhaps they also expect us to be grateful for that.

The fact is that that they are cowards, petrified of the big A.

Their constant fear of how the abortion debate will be reflecting in the number of votes they attract. This leads to them not being able to handle a discussion on anything related to sexual and reproductive health in this country.

The results of their wilful impotence are clear: one of the highest rates of teen pregnancies in Europe; the highest infant mortality rate in Europe; more than half of our teens do not use contraception because our sex education is negligible; and hundreds of women each year have abortions by buying the pills online, becoming criminals in the process. These facts are widely available and updated on yearly basis. What more do they need to understand how damaging the situation is? What exactly are they waiting for?

The bill Hon. Marlene Farrugia tabled is not the end of it all. It is just the beginning of a conversation that is long overdue. But it is also an opportunity for all those that claim to have gender equality close at heart to prove that they mean it because there will be no equality whilst women are treated as criminals. It is an opportunity for any father, brother, partner, husband in this country to show support for the women in their lives they hold dear.

This is also an opportunity for women in politics, regardless of their political party allegiance – it is your chance to take a swing at the shackles that hold down women in this country. To ignore it and stay silent, is to partake in patriarchal oppression and reinforce the status of women as second-class citizens in this country.

The bill is about decriminalisation, not legalisation. Therefore, each and everyone one of us needs to answer one single, yes or no question: Do women that had abortions deserve to go to jail? If the answer is yes, consider the hundreds of women that continue to remain invisible and are rendered voiceless. If the answer is no, then stand up and be counted. Women in this country need to hear your voice.

Ultimately, this is also an opportunity for our main political parties to show that they care about women in this country. The opportunity that, as things stand right now, they have squandered. More than squandered, they spectacularly failed.