Nice ‘abortion debate’ we’re all having, huh?

Our ‘total abortion ban’ is, in fact, a survivor of Malta’s 19th century attitude towards legislation... with pre-Enlightenment prejudices writ large all over it

“(1) Whosoever, by any food, drink, medicine, or by violence, or by any other means whatsoever, shall cause the miscarriage of any woman with child, whether the woman be consenting or not, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from 18 months to three years;

“(2) The same punishment shall be awarded against any woman who shall procure her own miscarriage, or who shall have consented to the use of the means by which the miscarriage is procured.”

There. Seeing as we’re supposed to be having a ‘discussion’ on abortion, I thought I’d start this article by reproducing the full extent of Malta’s legislation on the subject.

Two sentences. That’s right. Malta’s ‘total abortion ban’ – of which so many people in this country seem so very proud – amounts to just two measly little sentences, replete with archaisms, buried somewhere in the Criminal Code. And they do not even mention ‘abortion’ at all... probably because they were written at a time when nobody would have even understood the word.

Not only that, but they also clearly date back to an age when modern contraception methods did not even exist. This law predates the condom (in Malta, at any rate), the diaphragm, the birth-control pill – still less the morning-after pill, which was legalised just last year. Meanwhile, there has been a global revolution in the field of assisted reproduction – IVF, and all that – but of course, no corresponding amendments to the preceding law... so that it at least refers to the paradigm we’re actually living in, instead of the one we lived in 100 years ago or more.

Much more seriously, however, this antediluvian abortion ban of ours takes absolutely no stock of the fact that ‘miscarriages’ can be ’procured’ by means which are not only legal, but also absolutely vital. There was no such thing as chemotherapy for cancer patients when this law was written. Doctors did not have to face the dilemma over whether to administer treatment to a sick ‘woman with child’ – I mean, for crying out loud: even the word ‘pregnant’ was taboo back then – knowing full well that the treatment would ‘cause a miscarriage’.

Our ‘total abortion ban’ is, in fact, a survivor of Malta’s 19th century attitude towards legislation... with pre-Enlightenment prejudices writ large all over it.

Consider, for instance, the emphasis on ‘punishment’, for a crime that is exclusive to women. How easy it is for a legislature composed uniquely of men (women were not even allowed to vote when that law was drawn up) to simply gang up and decide between them how best to subjugate women to their own will. And how easy, to just order women to have children... when the State simply washes its hands of all responsibility towards the children that ensue directly from the loins of its own policies....

This, ultimately, is what makes our abortion law a hang-over of the Victorian era. It is redolent of the same ‘bread and water’ motif that we moved away from, in all other spheres, over a century ago. The same mentality that gave us ‘hard labour’ and ‘the debtor’s prison’: both arising from the antiquated view of ‘the Law’ as an exclusively punitive system; and both eventually ironed out of Malta’s legal framework, on the grounds that our general attitude towards ‘the Law’ has changed slightly since then.

Why have we not managed to make the same step here, too? Why do we insist so ferociously on retaining such a blatantly outdated law, that simply holds women responsible for their own predicament... without even pausing to consider that the State may have responsibilities, too?

But let’s go back to the law itself, and admire it in all its misogynistic glory. Read it again. It’s supposed to be a ‘pro-life’ law, but... where’s the concern with the well-being of the unborn child? I do not detect a single word or phrase that reflects any such concern at all. There is not a hint about providing assistance after the child is duly brought into the world, for instance. There is no acknowledgment of the conditions and circumstances that may have led ‘the woman’ to that scenario in the first place. There is, in fact, nothing but a naked, undisguised desire to ‘punish’ women, for something that can – let’s face it – only happen to women. In a law that was written by men, and is now being defended by a Parliament that is over 85% male.

How does that make it a law designed to ‘protect the unborn child’? It is nothing of the kind, quite frankly. For starters, it can no longer serve that purpose in today’s world (if that was ever its intention, which I doubt). A ‘woman with child’ has more options today, than she had when the available methods were drinking turpentine, or impaling oneself on a rusty knitting needle.  She can go abroad and have a perfectly legal abortion elsewhere (there are statistics to show that hundreds do that every year). She can purchase abortive pills over the internet. And yes, if she can’t afford either of those options, she can still throw herself down the stairs. It’s not as though two measly sentences in the Criminal Code are going to stop her, you know. Not if her situation is (ahem) desperate; and especially not when the same law has never, to the best of my knowledge, actually resulted in a criminal conviction for abortion in Malta.

But let me guess. You want to keep that law as it is, right? Like all our brave politicians, you want to embalm and preserve that ossified law for all eternity, as a relic of an age when Maltese women knew their place, and when laws were there only to enshrine our prejudices and cultural biases... and not to actually regulate matters on the ground?

Erm... why, if you don’t mind my asking? What is it about those two sentences that you think may be actually worth preserving, unchanged, forever?

My own answer to that question is: nothing at all. There is not a single word I would retain from that law, if it were my job to update it to the 21st century. I would just throw the whole thing out onto the legal scrapheap where it so clearly belongs, and draw up new legislation from scratch. After all, we’ve done the same thing for our national drug policy; we moved away from a purely punitive system, and now take fuller stock of the surrounding social realities. We even appointed a Law Commission to revise the Criminal Code, and weed out articles which are, for whatever reason, outdated or obsolete. And rightly so, because it is NORMAL – if that word even means anything in this country any more – to update laws every few decades or so. Otherwise, we’d still have laws about horse-drawn carriages, instead of the Highway Code...

And that, in a nutshell, is what those women you all love to insult so much have proposed. A simple update of national legislation, to reflect present-day realities. So let’s take a look at that position paper, shall we? Among the suggestions are..., State-funded contraception, to help minimise the demand for abortion by making it harder to actually get pregnant in the first place. Gee, how shockingly unreasonable. What were they even thinking? Don’t they know that the whole purpose of an ‘abortion ban’ is to actually limit the ways a woman can take precautions, and maximise the chances of her getting pregnant... so that we can all have fun ‘punishing’ her when the inevitable happens?

Then there’s a proposed revision of the National Sexual Health Policy and Sex Education programmes in schools, so that teenagers – the highest-risk age group, by a tidy few million miles – would actually know a thing or two about the risks involved in sex, before going at it like bunny-rabbits.

Silly! Let them go at it like bunny-rabbits, without a clue as to the consequences. What do we care? After all, it’s not the job of a country’s legal system to educate people to make them more socially responsible.  Oh, no. The job of a legal system is to keep a country’s people as ignorant as possible... and then punish them for their ignorance. I mean, come on, ladies. It’s really not that difficult...

Oh, and then there were the proposals that actually do allude to abortion (by my count, around 10% of the total position paper). And what did they propose, exactly? That we ‘decriminalise’ abortion... i.e., remove the existing ’18 month to three year’ prison sentence, which: a) has never been imposed by the courts anyway; b) has never been any deterrent, as amply attested by local and international statistics; and c) is actually just a disgrace, when you stop to think about it for more than two seconds. What does society gain by imprisoning women for the grave crime of having had to take a difficult decision... in difficult circumstances that no man can ever fully understand? Where the heck is the justice in that?

Lastly, that Maltese women have safe access to abortion in four specific (all rather extreme) circumstances: when the mother’s life is in danger, in cases of rape and incest; and when the foetus has no chance of surviving the full-term pregnancy anyway.

OK I’ll grant that two of those proposals – rape and incest – may give rise to conflicting opinions; but the other two? Are we seriously even going to debate this? What country in its right mind would force a woman to go through with a pregnancy, when it could kill either herself, or the unborn child?

Only a fundamentalist, extremist and utterly (but UTTERLY) misogynistic country would legally allow that to happen. And it looks to me like we might just be living in one...

More in Blogs