Malta’s answer to ‘Roe vs Wade’? ‘Roe(sianne) vs Roe(berta)!’

Our politicians are beginning to actually touch upon the real issues surrounding abortion, for the very first time. Who knows? Our own ‘Roe(sianne) versus Roe-(berta)’ may yet prove to be as much of a political game-changer

Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar
Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar

But before delving into the latest political tit-for-tat between Rosianne Cutajar and Roberta Metsola – which I am sorely tempted to refer to as ‘The War of the Roes-es’, from now on – consider, for a moment, the following reaction by pro-choice activist Andrea Dibben:

“Let’s just pause and acknowledge that for the first time in Maltese history, two politicians are arguing on who should be doing something about antiquated abortion laws, instead of using the ‘A’ word as a threat.”

Now: in case you were wondering why that last part was interrupted by a loud, ‘thud-like’ noise... well, it was the sound of a nail being hit squarely on its head, by a well-aimed, two-handed, sledgehammer. There is, in fact, no other way of putting it: Andrea Dibben is 100% correct.

Well... make that 99.9%: because there was, after all, another female MP – named Marlene Farrugia – who once tried to ‘do something about Malta’s antiquated abortion laws’... by presenting a private member’s bill to actually amend them, once and for all.

But still: close an eye at that single exception, and it is undeniable that this is ‘the first time in Maltese history’ that politicians are discussing abortion for the issue that it actually is... rather than just using it as a concussion-weapon, to bludgeon all their political opponents into submission.

And to put that into a little perspective: cast your minds, for a moment, over all the other times that the dreaded A-word has been (ahem) ‘discussed’ in this country, over the years. Like that time (around 2005/6) when the Nationalist government suddenly decided to embark on a ‘Mission From God’, to entrench Malta’s total abortion ban into the Constitution.

You will surely not need reminding of all the ‘discussion programmes about abortion’ that were prompted by that single, solitary initiative [note: I took part in one myself; and I’ve been trying to forget it ever since]; or how many newspaper column-inches were taken up by furious arguments, both for and against...

And yet, while we can all remember the furore that surrounded the issue, at the time: how many of us ever paused to consider WHY the same controversy had even cropped up, in the first place?

Was it because of some socio-political development at street-level – such as, for instance, an alarming increase in the rate of back-street abortions – that eventually forced government to intervene?

Or was it simply because Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi espied an ideal opportunity to embarrass Alfred Sant: by painting him into a corner where the Opposition leader would appear to be ‘defending abortion’ (and therefore, more easily-labelled as a ‘murderer’... ‘baby-killer’... part of the ‘Axis of Evil’... etc. etc.)?

Hmm: I guess we’ll just never know the answer to that one, will we now?

But in any case: it’s exactly the same whenever MEPs from both parties harangue each other, across the European Parliament floor, over their support for (or opposition to) all those countless EP resolutions calling for ‘access to safe, legal abortion’ (among other variations of the same theme).

We all know perfectly well that EP resolutions are simply unenforceable, in any individual EU member state. And least of all, here in Malta: where we even have a special ‘Papal Dispensation’ in the form of a protocol, signed by both the European Commission and the Maltese government – that guarantees us the right to continue denying women their fundamental health rights, for precisely as long as we want to (thank you very much!)

So... what are those MEPs even arguing about, anyway? Clearly, it cannot be the actual repercussions of those unenforceable EP resolutions; and that leaves us with only one option, really. ‘Because it would make their own halo look that much bigger, in the eyes of all their pro-life constituents at home...’

And we can extend the same pattern much further back in time, too. That ‘EU protocol’ I just mentioned, for example: why did we end up wasting so much of our precious bargaining-power, during those pre-accession negotiations, to secure a document which merely spelt out what ‘being a member state’ all along means? (I.e., that abortion is a matter of national, not EU, competence)?

Was it out of a genuine fear that the European Commission might really somehow ‘force’ Malta to legalise abortion, in future? Or was it because Alfred Sant himself had simply resorted to the same box of tricks, that would later be used against him: likewise wielding the dreaded ‘A-word’ as a zweihander, with which to mow down Malta’s chance of ever joining the EU?

And just to prove to us, all these years later, that his motives had nothing whatsoever to do with ‘abortion’: the same Alfred Sant is now calling for a relaxation of Malta’s total abortion ban, himself...) ... which shouldn’t even surprise us all that much, by the way. After all, Tonio Borg – the architect of that Constitutional amendment crusade – had undergone a similar Damascene conversion, on his way to being appointed European Health Commissioner. And oh look: the same thing had happened to Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg before him... and also, by a remarkable coincidence, to Roberta Metsola herself, just last January.

At which point, the dynamics of this little pattern become just a tiny bit more visible, don’t they? Having spent all those years weaponizing abortion, for their own political purposes and when finding themselves addressing a totally different political audience, of course it suddenly ‘serves their political purposes’ to start whistling a totally different political tune...

But the underlying question remains the same, in all such cases. All this impassioned rhetoric about ‘abortion’, that crops up so very often in this country... is any of it ever REALLY about the legal and/or health ramifications of Malta’s actual legislation, at street level?

Clearly, the answer to date has always been: ‘No.’ Until last Monday, to be precise. And this brings us right back to our ‘War of the Roes-es’: which contrasts with all those other cases, in at least one crucial respect.

Both Roberta Cutajar and Roberta Metsola really ARE discussing the legal and/or health ramifications of Malta’s total abortion ban, for a change... and for precisely the same reason: the discussion itself is proving to be every bit as ‘complex’, as the issue itself.

OK, let’s start with Rosianne Cutajar: who on Monday became the first – and to date, only – MP to raise the case of Andrea Prudente in Parliament.

To give her adjournment speech its full due: Cutajar echoed calls by Maltese doctors, to amend the law to provide for medical abortion in such cases... arguing that “every woman in Malta has to have her mind at peace that her life will not be put at risk if things do not go as planned.”

But she couldn’t resist taking a pot-shot at the EP President: who had earlier tweeted, “The regression of women’s rights in the US, and in other places around the globe, is a worrying trend. The European Parliament will keep standing up for women, equality and liberty.”

Naturally, this prompted Cutajar to ask the (perfectly reasonable, all things considered) question: “Where were you just 24 hours before when we had an American woman, who was risking her life because of Malta’s restrictive abortion law?”

To which Roberta Metsola drily responded: “[...] it is the Maltese Parliament, where Ms Cutajar still sits, with the Party she forms part of in Government since 2013, that has had and still has the legislative power to change, if it so desires, laws on this issue in Malta...”

See what I mean? It’s already getting complicated, right there.

For starters: Roberta Metsola is certainly right about one thing. If Rosianne Cutajar’s concerns were as genuine as they sounded... she should ideally have directed her criticism towards her own government – and especially, towards her own colleague, Health Minister Chris Fearne (whose complete silence on this issue has been more than just ‘deafening’... it’s hurting my goddamn ears!)

Besides: there are better ways for Rosianne Cutajar to achieve her own objective, than by ‘calling out Metsola’s hypocrisy’. She could also do what Marlene Farrugia had done last year: and force her government to debate the issue, by tabling a private member’s bill of her own (or even just re-tabling Marlene’s, if it comes to it...)

At the same time, however: Roberta Metsola’s response doesn’t quite exonerate her from her own responsibilities, as European Parliament President (which, in her own words, include ‘standing up for women, equality and liberty’, across the EU).

All the more so, given that:

a) Metsola herself had earlier indicated that she WOULD, in fact, be pressuring the Maltese government to ‘ensure access to safe, legal abortion’: among other things, by promising to sign the Simone Veil Pact – just one day after her election as EP President which recognises abortion as a ‘fundamental human right’; and

b) Her own reaction to the ‘Rose vs Wade’ reversal, in the United States, was to describe it as ‘regressive’.

How much more ‘regressive’, then, is the situation here in Malta: where – unlike any of the nine US states which have so far criminalised abortion – there are no legal exemptions, even in cases where the mother’s health is at risk?

But no matter: for as Andrea Dibben rightly noted... our politicians are, at least, beginning to actually touch upon the REAL issues surrounding abortion, for the very first time. And as such, who knows? Our own ‘Roe(sianne) versus Roe-(berta)’ may yet prove to be as much of a political game-changer, as ‘Roe vs Wade’ before it.