‘Gay marriage leads to abortion’... but only under Labour

Busuttil, or any other leader, past or present, can change his own views as much as he likes. By no means does it follow that great chunks of the PN support-base will follow suit

I would say the prospect of introducing abortion today is less likely than it has ever been at any point in our entire history
I would say the prospect of introducing abortion today is less likely than it has ever been at any point in our entire history

The funny thing about the ‘everything leads to abortion’ argument is that – if it were actually true – Malta should really have introduced abortion around four decades ago.

Just think of all the things that were supposed to ‘lead to abortion’, but somehow never did. Civil marriage. EU membership. Divorce. Civil Unions. IVF. Emergency contraception... all were resisted in their day with the same old ‘slippery slope’ argument; yet we clearly haven’t quite slipped down that slope yet. In fact, we are no closer to having abortion clinics at every corner today, than we were when women first got the vote in 1945.

If anything, we have entrenched ourselves ever deeper in our national ‘pro-life’ mindset. It was only in recent years that American Evangelist-style movements such as ‘Gift of Life’ and ‘Life International’ emerged, to make even a rational discussion on that subject all-but impossible. I would say the prospect of introducing abortion today is less likely than it has ever been at any point in our entire history: because it is now no longer individual institutions such as the Church or political parties that actively oppose it; there is an organised, street-level and entirely lay/apolitical ‘resistance movement’ that quite simply never existed before. 

And all along, of course, there is a marked lack of any corresponding lobby-group – in or out of the political mainstream – representing the pro-choice side of the argument. With the exception of one or two solitary voices here and there – mostly male, I can’t help but note – there isn’t even anyone calling for abortion to be legalised in the first place.

Does that stop people from making the same old lazy argument, however? I.e., that everything they themselves personally dislike, will invariably ‘lead to abortion’? 

Heck, no! After all, this is a political argument we are talking about here. It doesn’t have to actually correspond to any existing social reality... it only has to sound good in the ears of a select target audience. 

Take the ongoing ‘Marriage Equality’ debate in Parliament, for instance. Part of the Nationalist Party’s official reasoning in supporting the bill is (and I’m paraphrasing Simon Busuttil here) that it would add nothing substantive to rights already enjoyed by same-sex couples under the Civil Unions Act of 2015. So whatever impact ‘gay marriage’ may be expected to have on the social fabric of Malta... we should already be feeling those effects today. 

Then along comes Edwin Vassallo – representing the same party, please note – telling us that he will vote against the bill because it constitutes “a prelude to the culture of death”. The new law, he argued in parliament, “will prove to be the foundation stone upon which other laws will be built... laws that tamper with the right to life”.

Hmm. OK, I’ve already pre-emptively addressed the major flaw in that argument. Edwin Vassallo himself admitted (almost in the same breath), that “same-sex marriage was already part of Maltese law through the Civil Unions Act”. So why has this ‘culture of death’ not already made any inroads? Why has it become harder, instead of easier, to even talk about abortion... let alone introduce it?

But there is a much greater fallacy in the above argument... and it has nothing whatsoever to do with gay marriage or (still less) the ‘right to life’. Edwin Vassallo seems to have already forgotten this little detail... but it was only last May that the ‘Forza Nazzjonali’ coalition (on whose ticket he won his parliamentary seat) launched its electoral manifesto. 

This, for the record, was ‘Electoral Promise Number 49’: “Nibnu fuq kull titjib li sar fid-drittijiet LGBTIQ f’dawn l-aħħar snin u nressqu liġi għall-introduzzjoni ta’ żwieġ bejn persuni tal-istess sess.” [We will build on all the advances achieved in LGBTIQ rights in recent years, and table a law for the introduction of marriage between people of the same sex.]

Does anyone recall Edwin Vassallo having any moral qualms about contesting the June 3 election on that promise? I certainly don’t.  On the contrary, he was only too happy to contest on that platform... which also means that – had the FN won – he would have been part of a government that was committed to pass exactly the same sort of legislation anyway.

How would he have dealt with his conscience then? If it were his own government ushering in a ‘culture of death’ through the backdoor, instead of Labour... would he have voted in favour? Or risk bringing his own government down, by crossing the floor in what would almost certainly have been a one-seat majority scenario?

We could have a lot of fun trying to guess, but it isn’t even necessary. The answer is obvious. Under those circumstances, he would never have raised such objections in the first place. He even spelt this out for us in no uncertain terms. One of his stated reasons for voting against the bill was: “I don’t trust Joseph Muscat.” 

So what Edwin Vassallo is really saying here is not that ‘gay marriage’ – in and of itself – will pave the way to abortion. It is that gay marriage would lead to abortion, only if introduced by a Labour government. Specifically, a Labour government under Joseph Muscat.

Hard to think of a more utterly facile argument than that, really. But to be fair to Edwin, he is not the only one using it. His entire party has been saying more or less the same thing for years now... ever since Joseph Muscat became PL leader in 2008, to be precise.

The arguments didn’t always concern abortion. The PN’s position on fiscal policy, for instance, has been underpinned by exactly the same logic ever since the Panama Papers affair. You will note, for instance, that the Nationalists never once criticised the core issue exposed by that scandal... i.e., the fact that Malta forms a small link in a whole chain of international tax evasion mechanisms, that the European Commission is now determined to dismantle. 

No, the only problem the PN ever saw with our country’s fiscal policy – which they actually invented, by the way – was that it was being administered by a Labour government. Simply change government, and hey presto! All that was previously wrong with the system suddenly becomes right... just because one party instead of another gets to run the same show.

Coming back to the gay marriage issue: well, this same attitude has now landed the PN in a right pickle. As I may have already indicated, I find Edwin Vassallo’s reasoning at best a little wonky; at worst, a little contemptible and mean. But on a certain level, I have to concede he is also being consistent. Just a few weeks ago, it was not just Edwin Vassallo accusing Joseph Muscat of wanting to introduce abortion by stealth: it was also the official position of the PN under Simon Busuttil. 

This, for example, was Busuttil’s response to a statement by Gift of Life last January: “I reiterate that under my leadership, the Nationalist Party will not be open to the legislation of abortion or euthanasia. [...] the same cannot be said about Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who is clearly flirting with the idea of introducing one or both should he win the next election.”

But now look what’s happened. As electoral strategies go, this one backfired so severely – what with Joseph Muscat increasing his national majority, and all – that the PN has only now cottoned onto the idea that... well, maybe it should start changing its tune slightly.

And change its tune it did. I listened to the Marriage Equality debate, and was struck by how differently Simon Busuttil sounds today than just a few short months ago. His speech was lucid, insightful, brimming with compassion and humanity... and as such, it was also utterly discordant with what a significant chunk of his own party supporters evidently expected.

By defying the party line, on the other hand, Edwin Vassallo stuck doggedly to the PN’s pre-electoral hymn-book. And just look how much support he is now getting from the party grassroots... even from other MPs and party officials.

At this point, a question has to be asked. Who is really speaking out on behalf of the typical Nationalist Party voter here? Simon Busuttil, or Edwin Vassallo? Or is it a case that both these divergent views may be equally palatable to different ‘types’ of Nationalist voters? If so... what does that tell us about the PN’s core identity today? Does it even have one anymore?

Until recently, it was an easy enough question to answer. The PN’s core identity was built exclusively on hatred of (and automatic opposition to) Joseph Muscat. Nothing else mattered. It wasn’t even a case of: ‘anything Joseph Muscat can do, we can do better’. It was always simply: ‘anything Joseph Muscat does is WRONG, full-stop’. (A ‘battle between good and evil’, remember?).

A second, equally flawed pillar of the PN’s identity concerns the presumed hold the current leader actually has on the pulse of his own electorate. I have seen it argued, for instance, that ‘the PN changed its stance on gay issues...’ simply because its leader, Simon Busuttil, updated his own views since the Civil Unions debate.

Sorry, but those two things are not interchangeable. Busuttil (or any other leader, past or present) can change his own views as much as he likes. By no means does it follow that great chunks of the PN support-base will follow suit.

This can be confirmed by the internal divisions people like Edwin Vassallo and Tonio Fenech have now made inescapably visible. But it is also implicit in the election result itself. The ‘gay marriage’ promise evidently cost the PN more votes than it attracted. Clearly, Busuttil’s personal change of heart did nothing to alter the hearts and minds of his party’s more conservative voters.

But it is the first mistake – i.e., the strategy to invest so much in simply attacking Muscat on everything – that ultimately proved most costly. Like Captain Ahab in ‘Moby Dick’, the PN wasted so much time and energy pursuing this fatal obsession, that it forgot about all the other things it was meant to be doing after its 2013 defeat. Such as, ironing out all its internal differences on various issues, so that it could one day turn to the electorate and actually present itself as a compact, united alternative government... instead of the bundle of contradictions we are witnessing today.

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