Not all discussions need a mandate

We debate other issues without a mandate. And this debate is needed more.

When Nils Muiznieks, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, called for the “prohibition regime” on abortion in Malta to be addressed through an open and informed public debate, he was aware that he was touching on a thorny issue.

Muiznieks recommended that abortion be decriminalised, and access be facilitated to safe and legal abortion care on a woman’s request. The recommendation was included in a follow-up letter he sent to the Prime Minister after visiting Malta last November.

But in an interview with this newspaper, he added: “I think it’s disturbing, that in a developed democracy, you cannot have a democratic debate on a policy that affects the human rights of so many women.... especially when your policy really sticks out, in the broader context. “

From this perspective, Prime Minister’s Joseph Muscat official reply, that ‘the government does not have a mandate to introduce abortion in Malta’, does not address the key concern.

Granted, it is true that the present government – or any other in Maltese history – has no mandate to introduce abortion. It is probably also true (but here we are already in the realm of conjecture) that public opinion is firmly against it. But we are not necessarily talking about the ‘introduction of abortion’. The main argument is that the blanket prohibition policy needs to be discussed. And on that level, neither argument – mandate, nor public opinion – has any bearing whatsoever.

This is a discussion that needs to take place. It is not enough for people on the street to debate the matter; what is needed is a serious debate that should be held in its proper venue: Parliament.

The focus of this debate does not need to be whether we should permit legal abortions to take place in Malta or not. Such a debate would in fact be pointless, given the broad political consensus that exists to the contrary.

This does not mean that there is nothing to discuss, however. One other aspect Muiznieks mentioned was that abortion “affects a whole range of women’s rights. It affects their right to health; it affects their right to bodily integrity; their right to private life; it affects their right to be free of ill-treatment... because very often, women who are confronted with such restrictive regimes and policies are ill-treated: by doctors, among others.”

In Malta we have often ‘discussed’ our mutual agreement, across party lines, to keep abortion illegal... but we have never really discussed the effect of our country’s national policy on Maltese women.

Nor, for that matter, on the medical profession. It is a known fact, for instance, that medical abortions take place here, in all legality, under certain conditions. The overriding principle, in all cases, is that the abortion would be an undesired consequence of a necessary medical procedure: and not the intended aim of that procedure.

This is a reality that exists, and that even the most pro-life organisations perforce condone. Yet nowhere is it catered in specific terms for by Maltese legislation: which, on the subject of abortion, has remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century. Unfortunately, this political reluctance to ever broach these anomalies has resulted in a law that has proved impossible to ever update or change at all: in any detail, regardless if the prohibition on therapeutic abortion remains in place.

There are other areas that also need to be discussed. Our abortion legislation cannot be seen in a vacuum. There are consequences to Malta’s abortion ban, and these too must be addressed in turn.

At the same time as maintaining the blanket ban, Malta is also clamping down on ‘abuse’ of the single mother social benefit. Without questioning whether a degree of benefit fraud does take place, government’s approach must be measured against its responsibility for the outcome of its own policies. ‘No abortion’ also means ‘more children’... and therefore should also mean more social benefits to single mothers, not less.

But there is another reason to question Muscat’s flat refusal to even discuss the issue.

Muscat said public feeling is against abortion in Malta: but if there is no debate, how can one truly gauge public sentiment? And even if Muscat is right, on what basis do we discuss minority issues in Malta? On the basis of what the majority thinks?

It is more a case that there is no recognised and organised lobby pushing for such a debate at the moment. And this means that there is no pressure on the government to hold one... even if it is needed.

This, in addition to the fear of lost votes, is really what keeps abortion off the radar of public discussion. Political parties only ever want to discuss issues when their own direct interests are at stake.  And yet the truth of the matter is that - taboo or no taboo - abortion is a reality in Malta: even if Maltese women have to go abroad. And if something exists, and is a reality for some Maltese – even though perhaps a tiny minority - should there not be a debate?

We debate other issues without a mandate. And this debate is needed more.