How to abort a national discussion

In the end, then, Muscat’s endorsement of this discussion may well end up inadvertently aborting it instead

Since January 11, there is has been a lot of talk about the ‘end’ of the Joseph Muscat era (already extending to how history will ‘judge’ his impact on the national psyche, and all that).

Evidently, however, nobody bothered informing Joseph Muscat that his time is actually up. And judging by his last speech as Prime Minister, he himself does not seem to view his present predicament as either permanent or irreversible.

On the contrary, he was still trying to script the terms of his own departure, right down to the very last minute.

Far from fading quietly into the background, Muscat bowed out with a promise to remain active in the civil liberties sphere.

Admittedly, he didn’t go as far as to utter the dreaded ‘a’-word by name; but he did specify civil liberties where “every individual, every man and, above all, every woman, can take their decisions freely”; and that doesn’t leave many options, in a country where most of the other civil rights battles – divorce, IVF, emergency contraception, marriage equality,  etc. – have already been fought and won.

Muscat also said: “Looking forward, without the weight of a position and a programme, I will be more free to say everything I believe and how my thoughts have evolved with regards to civil liberties.”

Tellingly, he added: “Not everyone will see me in a good way when that time comes, but I feel indebted to future generations…”

As such, we didn’t even need news articles quoting ‘inside sources’ to guess that Muscat intends to somehow or other reignite the call of a ‘national debate on abortion’: thus promising to remain visible on the political radar for at least some time to come.

But to me, the bigger question is not so much ‘what’ he intends to do… but ‘why’.

Never mind the obvious possibility that his cryptic parting shot was just a diversionary tactic, aimed at distracting attention from the humiliation of his spectacular downfall. That much we can almost take for granted.

But why abortion, of all issues? Could it just be because this one issue has historically served as a smokescreen for creating instant outrage and panic (this case being no exception)?

Could it serve some other, subliminal political purpose?

Or did Muscat really experience a change of heart on this issue… possibly influenced by his experience defending Malta’s dubious policies on the international stage?

As someone who backs calls for a reform of our restrictive abortion laws, I find it hard to believe that Joseph Muscat is serious in his intentions initiate a discussion on abortion today… if nothing else, because he spent seven full years as prime minister doggedly ignoring repeated calls for precisely the same discussion: not just from the Council of Europe, but also from local NGOs such as ‘Women [and Doctors] For Choice’.

At this stage, it is important to clarify exactly what sort of discussion we’ve been avoiding all these years.

For some time now, the ‘Voices for Choice’ coalition has been calling for safe, legal access to abortion in a number of specific cases: namely, where there is a threat to the mother’s life or health (including mental health); in cases of rape and incest; and in the event of terminal foetal defects.

Without entering the merits of the actual issue, these changes would bring our legislation in line with the European norm: including in other ‘pro-life’ EU countries such as Austria and Ireland, where abortion restrictions were as draconian as ours until fairly recently.

This is, in fact, the whole point behind the ‘national discussion’ Muscat now seems to want to have. Regardless where one stands in the pro-life/pro-choice spectrum itself, there are clearly gaps in our current legislative set-up: gaps which have proved fatal in other countries, before their laws were changed.

In Ireland, it had to take the death of a young woman – Savita Halappanavar – for the country to finally realise that its supposedly ’pro-life’ policies were actually a direct threat to the life and health of pregnant women.

And this is precisely the scenario that Voices For Choice is trying to avoid locally, by urging the government to amend our abortion laws while we’re still in time.

All these arguments (and more: there’s also the issue of whether women should be imprisoned for terminating pregnancies) were put to Joseph Muscat in the days when he was still prime minister; and at a time when he enjoyed unprecedented popularity and power in the country.

Yet all along he resisted even discussing the issue… just like every prime minister before him. So the fact that he would suddenly ‘see the light’ only now – literally minutes before stepping down from the only position in which he could have actually made a difference - is almost a case of adding insult to injury.

This leaves us with the alternative view that there was no real change of heart at all; i.e., that Joseph Muscat had ulterior motives for dangling this prospect before our eyes at such a late stage.

It could be, as pointed out elsewhere, that the tactic was aimed at further splintering the Opposition, in the same way as Muscat had so easily (and successfully) done with divorce, IVF and marriage equality.

If so, however, he may have precipitated a dilemma for more than just the PN and a handful of civil society NGOs. He has also surprised and confused his own supporters within the Labour Party: of whom the overwhelming majority firmly believe that ‘abortion is murder’, under any circumstances... regardless of Muscat’s own opinion in the matter.

These, too, are among the ones who will “not see [Muscat] in a good way” when his intentions become visible to everyone. So in the longer term, Muscat may also be sabotaging the root cause of his (already dwindling) popularity among the Labour Party grassroots.

Meanwhile, he has also caused a problem for his replacement Robert Abela: who was forced to publicly pit himself against his former mentor, raising the spectre of party disunity that still haunts Labour from the old Sant-Mintoff days in the late 1990s.

The issues were admittedly a far cry from one another – and this one seems unlikely to ever cause a meaningful Parliamentary split – but Muscat remains both an MP, and Abela’s immediate predecessor (as Mintoff was to Sant); so the first flickers of a showdown between the two would no doubt have also rekindled unpleasant memories of those distant, troubled times.

It is hard to imagine that a seasoned politician like Muscat would not be fully aware of how his words would be interpreted; so I can only conclude that his declaration was indeed an attempt to somehow ‘condition’ the new Prime Minister… perhaps to remind Abela that neither he, nor his ‘movement of progressive moderates’, will be leaving the building any time soon.

Either way, his efforts have only reinforced Abela’s image as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative moulded from the same stuff as his father, former President George Abela.

More than driving a wedge through the PN and its splinter groups, then, Muscat’s parting shot appears to have prized open a (very small) gap between the Labour Party, and the microscopic minority that actually agrees with the need for reform in our country’s abortion laws.

Exactly why Muscat would want to do that – when his stated intention appears to be to champion their cause – is at best a mystery, at this stage.

Above all, however, his last flourish as Prime Minister has very clearly placed the pro-choice coalition in an awkward quandary.

Until recently, the liberals who make up that coalition might have looked towards ‘progressive’ Labour with more favour than a historically (and almost fanatically) ‘anti-choice’ PN. But in the light of recent events, many of its members are simply too repulsed by Muscat’s political persona to ever bring themselves to publicly agree with him (even when, at heart, they do).

And yet – regardless of his personal motives– Joseph Muscat has now positioned him as the only serving Maltese MP to have ever openly backed calls for discussion on abortion law reform; and while the coalition itself may argue (not unreasonably) that “women’s rights are not the fiefdom of politicians to be pulled out of the bag at opportune moments”… in reality, it is only through political action that their own demands can ever realistically be met.

The bottom line, then, is that… yes, we do need a national debate on abortion in Malta; and yes, politicians do have to be part of it.

But it cannot be a debate forced open only by political opportunism; nor can it be led by a politician whose very name provokes such divisive emotional responses either way.

In the end, then, Muscat’s endorsement of this discussion may well end up inadvertently aborting it instead.

And who knows?

In a twisted way, that too might have been part of his intention all along…