Abortion, by any other name…

Both Abela and Fearne seem to have finally (and belatedly) understood, that their previous policy-direction on abortion was simply unsustainable and if left unchecked, it would only lead to more potentially-embarrassing cases like Andrea Prudente’s, in future

Deputy PM and health minister Chris Fearne
Deputy PM and health minister Chris Fearne

In a country which organises so many ‘national awards ceremonies’, for almost everything under the sun… how about creating a whole new category, for ‘the most blatantly self-contradictory statements of the year’?

There’ll be no shortage of contenders, you know. As of right now, I would place both Health Minister Chris Fearne, and Prime Minister Robert Abela, towards the very top of the table: because both have recently gone on record, saying the equivalent of…

a) ‘We will NOT decriminalise abortion, in any shape, manner or form’, and;

b) ‘We WILL decriminalise abortion, but only in a number of (very restricted) circumstances’.

Hmm. Kind of difficult not to immediately such spot a glaring, ‘in-your-face’ contradiction, isn’t it? I mean, that’s almost right up there with the same government’s promises that:

a) “We will ensure that Malta’s communities get the ‘green spaces’ they deserve” (a pledge made in both the Labour Party’s most recent electoral manifesto; and also in Clyde Caruana’s last two Budgets, on the trot), and;

a) “We will also ensure that the construction lobby continues developing every last square-inch, of all the ‘green space’ that is actually available on these islands… until there is effectively no ‘green space’ left to even preserve” (a promise that was never made publicly, of course; but which seems to have been the whole point behind that ‘secret, private business-lunch’, organised by Joseph Portelli for the Prime Minister on the eve of the last election…)

But hey! Let’s stick to only one contradiction at a time (otherwise, we’ll be here till Christmas of 2056, at the very earliest). And if I choose to highlight the one about ‘abortion’, for now… it is partly because those two statements are not merely ‘inconsistent’ with each other… but also represent two completely antithetical – and mutually incompatible – policy directions on the same issue.

So let’s take them in chronological order, shall we? Starting with Chris Fearne: who announced, on September 2, that his government would soon be tabling an amendment to Malta’s abortion laws, following the Andrea Prudente case last summer. [Note: for further background details, I recommend this article: https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/national/117508/after_maltese_doctors_refusal_andrea_prudentes_pregnancy_medically_terminated_in_spain#.Y291mnbMKCh]

Specifically, the Health Minister stated that: “While we will not be opening any doors to pregnancy termination, we will ensure that doctors can carry out their work and save lives without any fear of breaking the law…”

What he didn’t state, however, was that these amendments also foresee that: “when there are medical complications during a pregnancy and the mother’s life is at risk, doctors can terminate a pregnancy to safeguard the mother’s life without the risk of legal prosecution. Of course, the mother will also be protected from prosecution.”

Got that, folks? The government has just proposed legal changes to the Criminal Code, that would: ‘open a door’ permitting doctors to ‘terminate pregnancies’ (if only for health reasons); and also, remove all criminal sanctions for both doctors, and mothers, in such cases.

Effectively, that adds up to a textbook definition of the term ‘decriminalising abortion’ [Note: I won’t be repeating ‘under certain specific circumstances’ every time; just take it as a given, from now on]. And what was it again, that Chris Fearne had so emphatically insisted that his government would NOT be doing, just literally a couple of seconds earlier?

Why, ‘decriminalising abortion’, of course (which also just happens to be exactly what NGOs such as Doctors For Choice have been urging government to do, for the past three years …)

In case you’re wondering, however: that second quote came not from Chris Fearne himself, but from a more recent interview with Robert Abela, dated November 6 (i.e., last week).

And just like Fearne before him, the Prime Minister also performed extraordinary feats of linguistic gymnastics, in his valiant efforts to make this contradiction appear less, um, ‘contradictory’ that it really is.

Having only just told us that ‘doctors [would be able to] terminate a pregnancy to safeguard the mother’s life, without the risk of legal prosecution’… his answer to the next question (“So, this is a form of decriminalising abortion?”) was…

“Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with abortion…”

Right: at this point, we have to seriously ask ourselves whether Chris Fearne and Robert Abela even know the meaning of the word ‘abortion’, to begin with. And I need hardly the question applies a good deal more to Fearne than to Abela; considering that the former is both Malta’s Health Minister – and therefore in charge of regulating the entire sector that ultimately has deal with such issues – and also, a medical doctor in his own right.

In the end, it fell to Doctors For Choice to draw his attention to the inherent contradiction: “It should be clear to everyone, and especially doctors, that abortion means termination of pregnancy! There is no difference between the two before a pregnancy is viable (at around 24 weeks). The treatment for ruptured membranes and sepsis before viability is an abortion. The treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is an abortion. If you cannot get these abortions, you die…”

Now: to be fair, there is room to argue that Robert Abela himself may indeed have been unaware of this definition, when he argued that ‘abortion’, and ‘termination of pregnancy’, actually mean two different things.

Chris Fearne, on the other hand, has absolutely no excuse to make such a fundamental mistake. He MUST know that the word abortion refers not just to the termination of unviable pregnancies such as Andrea Prudente’s… but also, to ‘spontaneous abortions’ of the kind that we more generally refer to as ‘miscarriages’. (Otherwise, quite frankly, he would never have become a practising doctor in the first place.)

Which of course leads me to believe that – in the health minister’s case, at any rate – it WASN’T actually a mistake at all. Chris Fearne knows perfectly well that his government fully intends to ‘decriminalise abortion’, in certain restricted circumstances; BUT…

… he also knows perfectly well (just as all the rest of us do, too) that the word ‘abortion’ has been misused so very often, over the past half-century – especially, by politicians – that its meaning has indeed ‘changed’, in today’s context: if not in the eyes of the medical or legal professions – and even less, on the pages of any English dictionary - at least, in the eyes of the wider Maltese electorate.

And this is something you can very easily test for yourselves: just ask any old random Maltese citizen – who is not, of course, either a doctor or a pro-choice activist – to define the word ‘abortion’… and see what answer you get.

How many people, do you reckon, will give the (technically correct) answer provided by Doctors For Choice, above; and how many will simply assume that ‘abortion’ refers only to a medical procedure to terminate viable (and unwanted) pregnancies; and even then, for reasons of ‘capricious convenience’, alone?

Leaving aside that the second (incorrect) definition also makes the mistake of judging even such ‘capricious’ abortions, using the same old blanket yardstick – thus blithely overlooking all the social, economic and health concerns that might also be involved, in such cases…

... but it also precludes all the (very real) medical conditions that might actually necessitate abortion, to save a woman’s life: regardless whether the procedure itself is permitted, or not, by law.

Ectopic pregnancies; ruptured membranes, and the risk of sepsis (as was the case with Andrea Prudente); not to mention any number of random (or occasionally congenital) disorders and/or pathologies, that may make a pregnancy both unviable, and potentially life-threatening, within the first 24 weeks…

… all of those necessitate ‘abortions’, too. Yet not one of them is actually mentioned – or catered for, in any way – by our 200-year-old legislation on the subject (which, incidentally, doesn’t even use the word ‘abortion’ itself. Funnily enough, Malta’s Criminal Code uses the term ‘termination of pregnancy’ instead… you know: the very same ‘termination of pregnancy’ that both Chris Fearne, and Robert Abela, seem to suddenly think is ‘absolutely NOT an abortion’…)

But this only brings me back to a point I raised earlier: i.e., that the contradiction inherent in the above statements, is also manifest in the government’s entire policy-approach, to an issue which the Prime Minister himself now defines as: “a sensitive issue that shouldn’t be monopolised by politicians.”

Well, guess what? It is precisely BECAUSE this issue has been monopolised by (insensitive) politicians, for so long, that people out there are so confused as to what the word ‘abortion’ even means in the first place. And this, in turn, is what has always allowed those politicians to so ruthlessly exploit this ‘sensitive issue’, for their own political gain: with results that now occasionally get reported – much to Malta’s chagrin - in the international press.

To be fair to both Chris Fearne and Robert Abela, however: both seem to have finally (and belatedly) understood, that their previous policy-direction on abortion was simply unsustainable, in the long run – and that, if left unchecked, it would only lead to more potentially-embarrassing cases like Andrea Prudente’s, in future.

And I’m pleased to have to conclude that… they both actually did the right thing, under the circumstances: by tabling an amendment that would – if enacted – put a stop to this bizarre legal anomaly, once and for all.

Ah… but will it really be enacted, in the end? That, I suppose, depends entirely on whether we ever take the next logical step, in this long and painstaking process: by also putting a stop to our own consistent distortions, of what the word ‘abortion’ really means.