Overplaying the abortion card

Stressing that the morning-after pill was not abortive, Serracino Inglott also confirmed that pills with the same active ingredients and mode of action were already available on the market

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Last week, an NGO called the Women’s Rights Foundation filed a judicial protest calling on the medical authorities to grant a licence for the morning-after pill: an emergency contraception method that remains unavailable in local pharmacies.

Predictably, the initiative was met with resistance. The Bishops issued a joint statement arguing that the morning-after pill may be ‘abortifacient.’ Pro-life groups such as the Gift of Life Foundation expressed similar concerns, as did – separately – former health Minister Godfrey Farrugia.

Even the Health Department appeared to suggest on its website that the morning-after pill is ‘illegal’ in Malta; only to change the wording, when the claim was contested by WRF.

There were even claims that licensing emergency contraception would ‘encourage rape’. It remains unclear, however, why such claims were never made with regard to other forms of contraceptive… which work exactly in the same way as the morning-after pill, but which are available over the counter at any pharmacy.

Clearly, there is a fog of misconception surrounding the entire issue of emergency contraception. Following the media uproar, it has transpired that the pill is not illegal at all.

The chairman of the Medicines Authority, Professor Anthony Serracino Inglott, confirmed that the pill does not contravene any legislation; adding that the only reason emergency contraception was not available in Malta was because nobody had ever applied for a licence.

Stressing that the morning-after pill was not abortive, Serracino Inglott also confirmed that pills with the same active ingredients and mode of action were already available on the market. Moreover, civil liberties minister Helena Dalli said she had “no problem” with the morning-after pill. 

All this raises serious questions regarding Malta’s approach to such basic issues as sexual health. It is a shame that Maltese women were forced to resort to legal action, to obtain what is ultimately a fundamental right already enshrined in international law.

As rightly pointed out by the WRF: “the right of women and couples to decide on number, spacing and timing of their children has been long enshrined in a number of international documents, many of which have been signed and ratified by Maltese governments.”

These include the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which Malta ratified in 1975. 

Above all, it is worrying that any kind of debate on an issue as important as family planning and contraceptives, is continuously nipped in its bud through overuse of the ‘abortion card’… especially when all top medical authorities concur that the morning-after pill is not even abortive. 

It is also sad that any serious discussion on abortion itself remains off-limits. Malta may not be ready to discuss legalising the procedure… but there are several aspects of the issue which can and should be debated. 

Malta should have a discussion on whether to allow abortions in specific cases. Despite sporadic attempts, the debate never took off because of the stubborn insistence by lawmakers to avoid a discussion at all costs.

Malta is the only European country, and one of the few countries in the world, which imposes a blanket ban on abortion in all cases, without any exception. 

Anyone performing an abortion – or any woman who performs one on herself, or consents to the procedure – can be jailed for between 18 months and three years.

In other countries where abortion is illegal, such as Poland and Ireland (both staunchly Catholic countries), abortion is allowed in cases where a woman’s life is endangered by the continuation of her pregnancy. The same is true of Andorra.

Poland also makes allowances in cases where the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act (the criminal act has to be confirmed by a prosecutor), or when the foetus is seriously malformed.

It may be argued that much the same happens in Malta: ectopic pregnancies are routinely aborted, citing the ‘double effect’ principle as justification. But there are individual pregnancy defects that are only allowed to be carried to full term in Malta, and nowhere else in Europe: anencephaly, for instance, where the foetus is formed without a brain, and invariably dies hours after birth.

Local doctors have separately raised the issue of the possible effects on the mental health of mothers, who have no option but to watch their new-born infants slowly die.

One can understand a reluctance to debate the introduction of abortion across the board; but to refuse to discuss the issue even in such extreme cases, is clearly a case of burying one’s head in the sand.

It is time for lawmakers to make a distinction between their public roles and their private beliefs, when legislating on behalf of others. For years, people suffered in silence as this country’s legislators refused to even debate such traditionally ‘taboo’ subjects as the introduction of divorce or gay marriages. 

Today, divorce is legal, civil unions are legal and the catastrophe many predicted never materialised.

In this sense, one must also welcome social affairs committee chairperson Godfrey Farrugia’s declaration that he would invite ASL sufferer Joe Magro to address three parliamentary committees, in order to discuss the equally sensitive issue of euthanasia.

We cannot afford to keep postponing such discussions indefinitely.

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