On abortion, some sense at last

It becomes a lot harder to ignore the realities on the ground when confronted directly by the people who are affected by them

Of late, there has been a noticeable change of tone in how the topic of abortion is discussed in the Maltese political arena.

For instance: when Malta was still vying to become a member of the European Union, then-Opposition leader Alfred Sant had used abortion as a ‘scare-tactic’ against membership. This led Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami to seek written guarantees from the European Commission, to the effect that Malta would not be ‘forced to legalise abortion’ (as Sant had earlier predicted.)

Ironically, it was the same tactic the Nationalist Party had traditionally always used against Labour, over the years: and – even more successfully – smaller parties like Alternattiva Demokratika. And like all those other occasions, it illustrates a fundamental problem with how this discussion has always unfolded.

It’s not so much that Maltese politicians do not want to discuss the issue of abortion; it’s that – until recently, at least – they only ever did so for their own, self-serving partisan interests.

As a result, there has never been any political commitment to revisit Malta’s archaic abortion laws (indeed, they have never been amended in more than 200 years); still less, was there ever any political interest in actually addressing the very real problems that people find themselves facing, as a result of these same laws.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that such attitudes are finally beginning to change. In a recent interview with The Times, Prime Minister Robert Abela struck a refreshingly different note on the subject.

Asked about the latest amendments to Malta’s abortion laws, tabled in Parliament last week, Abela explained that: “When [the Andrea Prudente] case happened this summer, Malta was in the international media for the wrong reasons. Following that case, we discovered there’s a long-standing practice at Mater Dei that goes back decades. In cases where the mother’s life is at risk, clinicians decide among themselves to terminate. But there are questions about the legality. So, we discussed with our health department and they presented a legal amendment to be discussed at cabinet level.”

The amendment will therefore state that: “when there are medical complications during a pregnancy and the mother’s life is at risk, doctors can terminate a pregnancy to safeguard the mother’s life without the risk of legal prosecution. Of course, the mother will also be protected from prosecution.”

This already marks a dramatic change from the previous political discourse: arguably, it is the first time a Maltese prime minister was heard actually discussing abortion for the issue it really is – with all its associated problems, and dilemmas – rather than simply using the word as a weapon, with which to bludgeon his political adversaries.

But Abela went further than that: “These past months I’ve met tens of women who aborted using a tablet. Conservatively, around 300 or 350 women abort this way every year. The number could reach 400. This happens in our country, everyone knows it happens but it’s easier to look away. And all these women told me the same thing: that they had been stigmatised and that none of them had found any sort of support […] How can I close my eyes to this?”

It is here, perhaps, that the biggest change can be felt. For if politicians like Robert Abela are suddenly aware of the existence of these women, it is only because of the recent emergence of a number of civil society action groups, which have effectively dragged the entire issue out into the hideous light.

Women for Women, in particular, gave a much-needed voice to the plight of the many thousands of Maltese women who were – and still are – afraid to speak out openly, for fear of criminal repercussions. It did this quite literally, too: by opening up its online discussion panels, for women to share their experiences in public.

What emerged was eye-opening, for many reasons. Apart from exposing the sheer number of women caught up in such situations, it also marked the first time (with perhaps one or two exceptions) where the national discussion was not dominated by a chorus of mostly male, and overwhelmingly pro-life voices: to the exclusion of virtually all other viewpoints.

Much the same could be said for Doctors For Choice: except that this NGO focuses more specifically on the challenges faced by Malta’s medical profession on account of the same abortion ban.

In itself, this represents a game-changing dynamic to the entire debate: which, in turn, explains why Abela also felt the need to add: “This is a sensitive issue that shouldn’t be monopolised by politicians. It should be broader society that leads this discussion.”

It is, after all, very easy to dismiss the entire issue as a ‘taboo’ topic – or to drown out the entire conversation, with inflammatory cries of ‘Abortion is Murder!’, etc. - when your audience consists only of likeminded individuals, who are all singing from the same hymnbook.

It becomes a lot harder to ignore the realities on the ground, however, when confronted directly by the people who are affected by them; and who, in this case, are demanding that the country’s political forces come up with long-overdue solutions to their problems.