‘Be afraid, be very afraid...’

If we’re going to draw up decent legislation on any given topic, it would help to know a thing or two about the issue you’re legislating about

“It would be far more cruel, and it would weigh on my conscience, than to suggest to the woman to undergo an abortion. It shouldn’t matter what the majority thinks, and whether the prime minister thinks this issue warrants a discussion or not,” [...] “I believe that if there is one Maltese citizen with a serious medical condition, carrying a baby which will clearly not live, something needs to be done.”

“These women will have the most horrendous of births. And that is real trauma.”

Those are two separate quotes from an article by a colleague of mine, Tia Reljic, last Sunday. She asked a number of local gynaecologists the following question: ‘Do Maltese patients ever seek their advice on abortion?’

And what do you know? Not a single one of Malta’s gynaecologists agreed to give her an on-the-record answer. Only two gave any comments at all (see above)... strictly on condition that their anonymity is respected.

What are they so afraid of, I wonder? Why has it become impossible to answer a very simple, straightforward question about one’s own profession?

For let’s face it: if we’re going to draw up decent legislation on any given topic... it kind of help to know a thing or two about the issue you’re actually legislating about, don’t you think? How are this country’s laws expected to be relevant, if they don’t even take the most basic, fundamental and entry-level facts into consideration?

Like... duhhh... how many women seek abortions in Malta, anyway? Sort of important to know that little detail, I would have thought... especially if you intend to pass legislation to make it impossible for them to actually find what they’re looking for...

And in any case: if gynaecologists don’t speak out openly about an issue that is direct concern to their own profession... how on earth are the rest of us expected to debate the issue? What are even we going to base the discussion on?

The equivalent would be a ‘national discussion’ about drug decriminalisation (for argument’s sake)... in which all the experts and professionals in the field – Sedqa, Oasi, Caritas, etc – simply keep their opinions to themselves. Not only that, but visibly panic the moment they are asked for their contribution: ‘What, me? Comment publicly about a national issue of direct relevance to my own profession? Not on your life...’

And yet, those two furtive, frightened, off-the-record comments speak volumes about the sheer seriousness of the issue we are refusing to discuss. Maltese gynaecologists do encounter cases of the most ‘horrendous’ (their word, not mine) varieties imaginable. And at least two of them evidently have serious misgivings that Malta’s legal framework is simply not up to the task of regulating the issue properly.

Let’s look at the actual quote again: a Maltese woman ‘with a serious medical condition, carrying a baby which will clearly not live’. This is the sort of contemporary reality that the Maltese medical profession – not to mention the unfortunate patient – has to deal with from time to time. What is the legal situation governing that scenario, exactly?

The short answer is: there isn’t any. The only thing Maltese law seems capable of doing in such cases, is threatening doctors and mothers with prison if they ‘procure a miscarriage’. No exceptions, no provisos to relieve doctors of any culpability in such cases... just a blanket ban, written in another age, which fails spectacularly to even acknowledge the existence of the reality it is supposed to be regulating.

And we all have to accept it, because... well, because otherwise we’ll be ‘blacklisted’ and ‘shunned’ by society, that’s why. Which brings me to the second symptom of this ‘culture of fear’ we have somehow managed to create around this single issue in Malta. PBS News this week featured a short interview with a Maltese woman who had an abortion abroad. The video was blurred out to conceal her identity... and, even more disturbingly, her voice was distorted into a metallic drone, reminiscent of the Daleks in ‘Doctor Who’. You know, just in case someone might recognise her, and... well, what? Threaten her? Stalk her? Murder her?

Who knows? The only certainty is that this level of ‘protection’ is usually associated with ‘witness protection programmes’ in criminal cases involving Mafia informants. By offering the same reassurances to a woman in those circumstances, PBS only graphically underscored the fact that Maltese women do indeed have reason to fear for their safety. And what better way to ‘protect’ them from social reprisals.... than by entirely dehumanising them on live TV, so that they look and sound like monstrous deformities or aberrations?

That, to me, is truly shocking. How on earth did we even get to the stage where people are so frightened to talk about this daily reality, that a woman – who is supposed to enjoy ‘freedom of speech’, guaranteed to her by the ‘European Convention of Human Rights’ – has to be ‘disguised’ for her own protection?

It would be upsetting enough if it were a one-off, isolated case. But it isn’t. Watching that clip reminded me of an episode of Xarabank, around 2005/6 – when we were discussing ‘entrenching the abortion ban into the Constitution’, remember? – in which the exact same technique was used, for the exact same reason.

That was 10, going on 15 years ago. And evidently, we haven’t even progressed an inch since then. We still live in a culture of fear. Women who’ve had abortions have good reason to fear for their own lives/safety (leaving aside the fear of criminal prosecution and possible imprisonment, naturally). People of any gender have good reason to fear simply expressing an opinion on the same topic – unless, of course, it’s the socially accepted opinion, in which case they’ll shout it incessantly from the rooftops. And most worrying of all, Maltese gynaecologists still fear going public with serious concerns about their own profession: even when, off the record, they will admit that the situation is ‘horrendous’.

And who can blame them? Their fear is entirely justified. I’ll admit that my initial reaction, upon reading Tia’s article, was to dismiss them all as spineless cowards. But that view fails to take in the extent of the actual possible repercussions. They might have their practitioner’s licence revoked. They might lose their job. They might lose patients, friends, and – in a nutshell – social acceptability.

These are high prices to pay, for simply airing one’s private misgivings about serious medical issues, of the kind described above. But of course, it pales to insignificance compared to the price that has to be paid by women actually caught up in those circumstances. To those women, the only thing we ever seem capable of saying as a nation is: ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid.’

And if anyone tries saying anything slightly different – like: how about we amend that primitive law, so that it reflects the professional concerns of the people involved in the sector? – well, they’d better be ready to hide their faces and muffle their voices... and maybe change their appearance through plastic surgery, while they’re at it... because there’ll be Hell to pay.

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