How to (accidentally) legalise abortion in Malta...

The PN must be banking a very great deal on the success of this strategy, if they genuinely believe that as many as 10% of Labour voters would be persuaded to change their mind by the ‘abortion’ argument

Personally, I can’t understand what all this fuss is about
Personally, I can’t understand what all this fuss is about

A lot of fuss has been made about a ‘pro-life’ billboard erected by the Nationalist Party this week: the one with a picture of a six-to-eight-week-old baby, with the words: “Life: it’s my right” (or “I have the right to live”, if you prefer.)

Personally, I can’t understand what all this fuss is about. With the exception of Norman Lowell – who has proposed ‘benign mercy-killing’ for babies suffering from any physical or mental abnormalities – no one is even remotely questioning the ‘right to life’ of any baby that has already been born.

In fact, I still haven’t worked out why so many people seem to think this billboard is even a reference to ‘abortion’ in the first place. It isn’t, quite frankly. By definition, ‘abortion’ can only ever be applied to a pregnancy. And I think we can all safely agree that a pregnancy ends, the moment the baby is delivered.

Effectively, then, what that billboard is really telling us is that the Nationalist Party considers ‘killing babies’ to be wrong. And… erm… what, did they us expect us to be ‘relieved’ to find that out? Did they really suspect we may have harboured any doubts to the contrary? No, I didn’t think so either. (Now: had that billboard proposed ‘barbecuing babies on a spit’, on the other hand… you get the point.)

Ah, but that interpretation is limited only to the message imparted by image and slogan: alone, and stripped of any context. Against the backdrop of an electoral campaign in which ‘abortion’ has undeniably become an issue – and coming from a party that has a whole history of weaponising abortion for political purposes – the underlying meaning is painstakingly clear. Yes, it is an anti-abortion message, of sorts: only it is coming from people who: a) can’t tell the difference between a baby and a foetus, and; b) don’t seem to know what the word ‘abortion’ even means.

But then again… so what? Why all the fuss, Gus? I fail to see what’s so objectionable about a pro-life party publicly declaring its position on the issue of abortion: at any time whatsoever, still less a few weeks before an election. I would have thought that’s only to be expected. After all, no one would have batted an eyelid had the PN come out against ‘tax harmonisation’, or ‘land reclamation’, or ‘the Gozo tunnel’ (which it already either ‘did’ or ‘didn’t’, depending which party spokesman you listen to)… so why should abortion be any different?

And besides, it’s hardly like anyone can claim to be ‘surprised’, either. This is the same PN that tried to entrench Malta’s total abortion ban in the Constitution in 2005… that negotiated an ‘abortion protocol’ into the EU Accession Treaty… and has been busy scaremongering about abortion before every election since the mid-1990s… etc. etc. So the only element of ‘surprise’ here is that they evidently still feel the need to inform us of their pro-life views… despite having spent over 20 years ramming those views down our collective throats. (I mean… how stupid do they even think we are, to still not have worked it out all these years later?)

But I still can’t really fault them for relaying that message as part of their official campaign. I see nothing either illegitimate or underhand about nailing one’s own colours to the mast.

The same, however, cannot really be said for another ‘slogan’ based around the same theme. Twice now, the PN has trumpeted the message that ‘a vote for Labour is a vote for abortion’. That goes slightly beyond an affirmation (however unnecessary) of one’s own beliefs; that’s a case of gratuitously imputing beliefs and positions to others… the same tactic that was employed against Alternattiva Demokratika (the PN’s ‘allies’, in the struggle to join the EU) back in the days of Harry Vassallo... and especially against Arnold Cassola before the 2004 European elections (more on this later).

I shall have to concede, however, that the landscape surrounding this issue has changed considerably in the past 15 years. Back in 2004, abortion was simply not an issue at all. No one was even remotely discussing it at the time; so for the PN to just pull it out of a hat like that – dishonestly, for no other reason than to smear their opponents – was: a) particularly odious, and; b) spectacularly counter-productive.

Ironically, the PN only succeeded in placing abortion onto the agenda for discussion, where it had never been before… thus drawing public attention to our country’s antediluvian total abortion ban, which extends to cases of rape, incest, terminal foetal impairment, and risk to the mother’s health. So if women’s rights’ organisations (and, more recently, doctors) now openly argue in favour of limited access to abortion… the PN only has itself to blame. They were the ones who pointed their fingers, and told us where to look; they should have predicted that some of us would not particularly like what we saw.

But that was in 2004. Today – i.e., now that women and doctors ‘disliked what they saw’ enough to form lobby-groups, and actively campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion in Malta – the same tactic has to be revisited accordingly. Suddenly, it is no longer all that ‘illegitimate’ or ‘unfair’ to question another party’s position (or credentials) on this issue. With abortion now firmly on the national agenda… political parties do need to tell us where they stand: both for the benefit of pro-life voters, and also for those among us – myself included – who agree with those calls for decriminalisation.

The PN is also well within its rights to remind us where the European Party of Socialists stands on abortion. Of course, we could always extend that to all sorts of other areas: such as where the PN’s policies contrast with those of their allies in the EPP… but it doesn’t change the fact that Labour’s position does conflict rather glaringly with that of the EPS. The same goes for AD within the European Greens, and – much more drastically – for pro-life PD within the ‘Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats’ (!).

At a time when (admittedly very small) pockets of civil society are openly calling for, at minimum, a debate on the subject… it is hardly sufficient for a political party to simply reiterate the (very easy) line that: ‘we are in favour of life, full-stop’. Labour has to explain why its position on abortion is so very different from that of practically every other Socialist party in Europe (note: I only put in ‘practically’ to cover my ass there: my hunch is that Malta’s Labour Party is entirely unique in this regard).

I myself, for instance, would like to know why there doesn’t seem to be a single Labour Party candidate who agrees with safe access to abortion, in even restricted circumstances. Or how none of them would openly support those doctors who argue that Malta’s total ban endangers the health and safety of Maltese women. Not because I’ll be basing my vote exclusively on abortion in this election (I’d be left with pretty slender pickings, if I did); but because I happen to think it’s kind of… well… weird, wouldn’t you say?

Having said all this, the abortion card – or the way it’s being played, anyhow – remains an insidious strategy for other reasons: some of which have already been very well explained by my colleague Kurt Sansone here. In a nutshell: the European Parliament has no authority to force Malta to change its Criminal Code provisions on abortion. Only Malta’s Parliament can do that. Again, you’d think the PN would be aware of that tiny detail… seeing how it used the same argument itself, back in the days when Labour campaigned that… oh, dear… ‘a vote for Europe, is a vote for abortion’…

My, how times change. But like I said, that point has already been made. To me, what really stands out in the PN’s electoral strategy is (big surprise) the astonishing lack of foresight. Let’s go back to that slogan again, shall we? ‘A vote for Labour is a vote for abortion’.
Hmmm. Currently, polls are pointing towards a Labour majority of anywhere up to (roughly) 60% in this MEP election. But admittedly, that was before the abortion card was played.

The way I see it: the PN must be banking a very great deal on the success of this strategy, if they genuinely believe that as many as 10% of Labour voters would be persuaded to change their mind by the ‘abortion’ argument.  If so, I’d be curious to know what they base their hopes on, exactly… considering that the same strategy had backfired so utterly in 2004 against Arnold Cassola: who, despite all those ‘pro-abortion’ smears, almost got elected with 22,000 votes. (See? I told you I’d come back to it).

For the umpteenth time, this raises the (apparently unanswerable) question: how many times does an electoral strategy have to fail, before it finally dawns on the people using it that it’s just… not… a good strategy?

There is, however, a small difference this time round. The stakes are now considerably higher. Even conceding that the strategy may indeed work differently today – abortion being a more ‘palpable’ prospect, this time round – and that, yes, some Labour voters might conceivably be persuaded to change their minds over this issue… I somehow doubt the swing will be enough to overturn an (estimated) electoral advantage of 40,000 votes.

(As a side-note: I also fail to see why those ‘converted’ Labour voters should vote for the PN instead… and not for any of the other equally pro-life options on the same ballot sheet).

All other things remaining equal: the overwhelming likelihood is that, by the PN’s own argument, a clear majority will be voting Labour – and, therefore ‘in favour of abortion’ – on 25 May.

In that eventuality, Joseph Muscat – who has already helpfully informed us all that he thinks this election is all about… um… himself – would have been handed, on a silver platter, an electoral mandate to introduce abortion to Malta. By the Nationalist Party, no less. So legitimately – if not quite ‘plausibly’ – his first act of Parliament after 25 May could very easily be to rescind Article 241 (1) of the Criminal Code, and replace it with a law that decriminalises abortion for women and doctors, and permits the procedure in certain restricted cases (like, all things considered, we should really have done donkeys’ years ago anyway).

So again: why all the fuss about a pro-life billboard? With the Nationalist Party working so hard to accidentally introduce abortion through the backdoor… I see nothing whatsoever for Malta’s tiny pro-choice minority to even remotely worry about.

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