No equality for women who risk jail

Malta needs to ask itself whether there is any sense in retaining the threat of imprisonment for women who carry out abortions, when even Malta’s medical community agrees that the blanket ban only causes more harm than good

In presenting a private member’s bill to decriminalise abortion in Malta, independent MP Marlene Farrugia has – no doubt intentionally – stirred a hornet’s nest.

In an interview with MaltaToday, Farrugia explains that part of her intention was to force the two major political parties – which have between them dominated Parliament since Independence – to finally take up a public position on this controversial issue.

If so, she has certainly been successful. Both Labour and the PN were compelled to convene urgent parliamentary group meetings: but the outcome of those meetings was far from satisfactory.

The Nationalist Party was the first to break its silence: announcing – just two hours after initiating its internal discussion – that it “can never be in favour of decriminalising abortion” and “that it would support measures that do not endanger the life of a child before or after birth.”

This is hardly a proper response to the issues raised by Farrugia’s private member’s bill: which, ultimately, aims only to remove criminal sanctions for abortion, while keeping the practice itself illegal.

There is, after all, a world of difference between ‘decriminalising’ and ‘legalising’ abortion: and this is also reflected in public opinion.

Recent polls indicate that, while public opposition to abortion remains very strong, people respond differently when asked the question: do you agree that women should be imprisoned for procuring an abortion?

Indeed, it transpires that a relative majority – 46.8% – respondents said they do not agree with imprisonment in such cases. Ironically, this majority is more pronounced among PN voters, than Labour.

This does not, naturally, mean that the PN is compelled to change its views in the matter. Certainly, the Nationalist Party is well within its rights to take up an adamant pro-life position.

But if it chooses to oppose decriminalisation with the same fervour as it opposes abortion… it is also incumbent on the party to at least explain its reasons to the electorate.

It has not done this, however. Instead, it seems to have deliberately conflated these two, very different issues: as if to hide behind the widespread national aversion to abortion, in a bid to avoid having to even discuss the practical consequences of this total, blanket ban.

As such, the PN seems to be repeating the same mistake it had made – with disastrous consequences – during the referendum campaign in 2011. There is, after all, a limit to how often a political party can tell its own supporters, to their faces, that it just doesn’t care enough about their concerns to even bother discussing them.

All the same, however: at least, it remains a political position. The Labour Party, on the other hand, took much longer to come out with its own reaction… only to eventually issue what can only be described as a ‘non-statement’.

“The discussion on a sensitive topic such as abortion is conducted by society in a mature and free manner, and is not stifled by such a motion,” the party said.

“[We need] a discussion that is not monopolized by political parties in Parliament, and is built on honesty and respect for different views, without sensationalism or condemnation and against stigma.”

This is quite frankly meaningless. Far from ‘stifling public debate’, Farrugia’s motion has actually got the entire country discussing the issue. Conversely, it is Labour non-committal stance that fails to take this national discussion to its next logical step: a Parliamentary debate.

Moreover, both Labour and PN have time and again proven quite willing to ‘monopolise’ public discussion in this country. Once again, the party fails to explain why this issue, in particular, is such an exception.

Yet the reasons are fairly obvious. After pursuing so many perceived ‘liberal issues’ – IVF, gay rights, cannabis legalisation, etc. – Labour has clearly overstretched itself with the ‘progressive, moderate’ agenda. As such, its statement only betrays that it treats such matters as mere vote-catching ploys.

Moreover, one must question the entire purpose of a Parliament that simply absents itself from important national discussions. If Parliament refuses to debate a matter of such evident concern to the electorate… why does it even exist at all?

All this is a great pity, as – despite misgivings on the strategy employed by Marlene Farrugia – MaltaToday believes that this discussion is indeed not only important, but long overdue. Beyond the public furore that inevitably arises when the word ‘abortion’ is raised, there is clearly a need to revise an archaic law that has not been updated since the 19th century.

This country needs to ask itself whether there is any sense in retaining the threat of imprisonment for women, when even Malta’s medical community agrees that the blanket ban only causes more harm than good.

And yet, the political establishment has once again passed up the opportunity to make its own voice heard in this important debate. And this can only be described as a grave dereliction of duty.