You can’t ‘protect women’s lives’, without also protecting their ‘physical and mental health’

Much as I hate to say this, in a country where both abortion and suicide are equally ‘taboo’ – the condition of pregnancy, in and of itself, entails an inherent risk of depression: both before, and after childbirth

It’s a funny old world we live in, really. This week, for instance, Malta reacted to news of yet another femicide – the third of 2022; and around the 17th in the past decade – with all the usual platitudes and clichés that we’ve come to expect, over the years.

‘Society has failed Bernice Cassar!’; ‘This is a wake-up call!’; ‘We need decisive action to protect women, NOW!’…

Hmm. Ok, tell you what. For the purposes of this article, I’ll overlook the most obvious problem staring us in the face: i.e, that if Bernice Cassar was the umpteenth victim of femicide in Malta… then her murder was also the umpteenth ‘wake-up call’, for precisely the same sort of ‘action’ that everyone is once again (for the umpteenth time) demanding.

Honestly, though: I thought I had a problem with constantly ‘hitting the snooze button’, every time my alarm clock goes off. But to hit the snooze button, 17 times in a row… and STILL never quite ‘wake up’, by the end of it all…

I don’t know.  Sounds more like ‘dead’ than ‘asleep’, to me…

But I’ve decided to ignore all that for now: even because I simply don’t have any explanation (still less, any solution) for why no amount of ‘women getting murdered’ ever seems to be enough, to shake this country out of its deep, deep slumber.

So instead, I’ll follow some friendly advice I was given recently; and try to look for a ‘positive’ aspect in all this. What do all those above reactions have in common, anyway? (Apart, of course, from their sheer pointlessness, in a country that just never seems to learn from its past mistakes?)

Well, if nothing else… they suggest that most people here DO actually attach some kind of ‘value’ to women’s lives.  They DO agree that women deserve to be ‘protected’, in circumstances where their lives are in danger; and – even more specifically – they DO expect that the authorities take certain steps, to actually provide the sort of protection that is needed. (In fact, a sizeable crowd is protesting about this in front of the Police Depot, even as I write…)

So far, so ‘positive’. But then… like I said earlier: it’s a funny old world, really. So when the government recently tabled a legal amendment that would: “allow the termination of pregnancies if the MOTHER’S LIFE OR HEALTH ARE AT SERIOUS RISK” [my emphasis]… well, what do you know? The same people who are calling for ‘decisive action to protect women’s lives, NOW’, suddenly seem to attach a whole lot less value, to the lives of all the women they are supposedly trying to ‘protect’.

These include the Nationalist Party – which, unsurprisingly enough, is opposing the above amendment in Parliament (even though it has only just stated, in its reaction to Bernice Cassar’s murder, that: “the party is committed to keep fighting until every woman in Malta is protected…”) – but, in its own words, the PN has “aligned itself with the position adopted by more than 80 academics earlier this week, which asked for a tighter exception limited to when a woman’s life is in danger.”

So to find any form of explanation, for the astonishing contradiction inherent in that position – i.e., that the PN wants to both ‘protect women’, and ‘not protect women’, at one and the same time – we have to turn to the original statement penned by “the former Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Malta, Mgr Prof. Emmanuel Agius; professor of obstetrics Charles Savona Ventura, and former Dean of the Faculty of Laws, Prof. Kevin Aquilina.”

These three academics argued that the amendment, as proposed, “opens the door for legal abortion” because the proposed law does not only speak of instances where the woman is at risk of dying, but also adds the words “or her health [is] in grave jeopardy”.

They said this would also “open the door for doctors to carry out terminations if they deemed a pregnancy endangers the mother’s mental health.” In their own words: “The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations declared that the word ‘health’ also means mental health. Therefore, with the Government’s amendment, a pregnancy can be terminated, not just in cases where the woman’s life is at risk, but also in cases of mental health conditions. This means abortion will be allowed if a woman is going through serious mental conditions, none of which should ever justify the sacrifice of a baby’s life.”

Got that, folks? So according to these three academics – whose opinion forms the basis for the Nationalist Party’s entire official position in the matter – the only justification for ‘terminating a pregnancy’ is when the mother is (quite literally) already at death’s door. Or as they put it themselves: “when there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the mother’s life from a physical illness”.

And to be perfectly honest, I’m uncertain as to what shocks me more, at this stage: the assumption that ‘only a physical illness can possibly pose a life-threatening danger’ – a view which entirely overlooks the well-known risks of mortality, associated with all sorts of purely mental conditions – or the fact that their own proposed amendments, would simply land us all right back where we actually started.

That is to say, with a legal framework that simply doesn’t offer any real protection for women – not even when their health is in ‘grave danger’ - until they are literally caught up in a ‘life-or-death’ emergency situation (which, ironically, is precisely what this amendment is all along trying to avoid, in the first place).

Honestly, though: where do I even begin? Ok, let’s start with the egregious exclusion of ‘mental health’, as a possible risk to the mother’s life (not to mention, to the life of the unborn child itself). It seems strange to have to even point out such an obvious fact, but… ‘serious mental conditions’ do sometimes have fatal consequences, you know.

And this has particular relevance to this issue, because – much as I hate to say this, in a country where both abortion and suicide are equally ‘taboo’ – the condition of pregnancy, in and of itself, entails an inherent risk of depression: both before, and after childbirth.

I won’t go into all the medical reasons for this state of affairs – even because they should be rather obvious, to academics whose areas of expertise include ‘obstetrics’ – but let’s just say that the chances of developing a clinical depression (which is, in itself, a potentially life-threatening condition) are automatically going to be a lot higher when a woman is pregnant, than at any other time.     

Not only that: but according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: “The prevalence of suicidal thoughts and self-harm in the year before and after giving birth nearly tripled among childbearing people between 2006 and 2017...”

Now: these statistics are, admittedly, limited only to the United States… but then again, the hormonal effects of pregnancy are unlikely to also be ‘limited to women of any one particular nationality’, are they? And that, by the way, is why the rest of the world’s medical establishment (including both the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, etc) has long recognised that: ‘health’ includes ‘mental health’ (Duh!); and that ‘serious mental conditions’ DO actually pose a rather high risk, to the lives of… well, anyone, really. (But pregnant women, in particular).

So I, for one, find it just a little disconcerting, that so many local academics can so blithely dismiss, not just the omnipresent risk of ‘pre-(or post-)natal depression’, in any given case… but also, ‘mental health’ in its totality: as if ‘serious mental conditions’ do not even constitute any ‘real health risk’, at all.

But in any case: if we were to limit the proposed exceptions only to cases ‘where there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the mother’s life from a physical illness’ – and especially, if we also removed the clause that states ‘“or her health is in grave jeopardy”…

… what would we even be left with, anyway: if not the exact same situation, as it stood at the time of the Andrea Prudente case last summer (which is what prompted the government to even come up with this amendment, in the first place)?

Think about it for a second. Before, we had a situation where:

a) The law mentioned no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, in which a pregnancy could ever be legally terminated, and;

b) In cases where a mother’s life was at risk, doctors would invoke the ‘double-effect principle’… which effectively means they would simply wait until the mother really did develop a serious, life-threatening illness, before actually intervening.

Erm… do I even need to go on? If the opponents of this amendment are successful: and the law is diluted into one that no longer offers any protection whatsoever, to women who suffering from any ‘serious mental or physical health condition’…

… well, what’s the point in even amending this law at all? After all, it’s so much easier - and would have exactly the same effect - to just ‘keep hitting the ‘snooze button, and going back to sleep’: over, and over again.

Until, of course, we are once again rudely awoken, by the next time a case like Andrea Prudente’s crops up (which is, after all, exactly how we reacted to the 16 consecutive femicides that happened before Bernice Cassar was murdered this week.)

Coincidence? I think not…