‘Instant vilification’ is not ‘discussion’

To call pro-choice women ‘murderers’ and ‘animals’ does not contribute anything worthwhile to the discussion. On the contrary, it plays directly into the same group’s claim that a ‘culture of fear’ holds many Maltese women back from expressing their true opinions 

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It seems impossible to ever have a serious discussion about abortion in Malta. Each time the topic rears its head, it is almost immediately drowned out by a cacophony of panic and hysteria.

The latest example concerns a group of activists who released a position paper on the subject: arguing, inter alia, that Maltese law needs to be updated on a number of issues concerning female reproductive health. Instead of discussing the proposals themselves, most reactions resorted to simple name-calling and (even worse) threats and intimidation.

This is not a serious way to conduct a national debate on any issue. To call pro-choice women ‘murderers’ and ‘animals’ does not contribute anything worthwhile to the discussion. On the contrary, it plays directly into the same group’s claim that a ‘culture of fear’ holds many Maltese women back from expressing their true opinions in the matter.

Moreover, it is useless to point towards surveys or polls indicating massive majorities against abortion in Malta. It is by no means surprising that as many as 90% would conform to the majority view... if the price to pay for disagreeing is exposure to public opprobrium, shaming, hate-speech and sometimes even death threats.

If anything, this culture of instant vilification only proves that many people in this country would prefer to stifle the debate altogether... perhaps because they have no convincing arguments of their own. This view becomes more probable when one actually examines the four main tenets of the Women Rights’ Foundation’s position paper.

To begin with, the paper was about more than just abortion. The WRF put forward a number of recommendations for reform related to a national action plan for sexual and reproductive health, a comprehensive sex education programme, and contraception and family planning policies. 

Amongst other things, the paper recommends a revision of the National Sexual Health Strategy to reflect legal and societal changes occurring since 2011, with clear responsibilities, timelines and measures of monitoring and evaluation to ensure accountability and quality standards in services and the development of better sexuality education programmes which “place gender equality and human rights at the centre and use methods that foster participation and critical thinking.”

Wider and unrestricted access to sexual and reproductive health services through community-based clinics are another recommendation, as is the subsidisation of contraception as a public health investment.

Ironically, most – if not all – of these recommendations are aimed at lessening the demand for abortion in the first place. That this demand exists, in spite of the legal status of abortion in Malta, is a well-established fact. There are statistics confirming that Maltese women do travel abroad to seek abortions in foreign jurisdictions. The WRF also revealed statistics to show how many women buy abortion pills online.

It seems incongruous that people who define themselves as ‘pro-life’ would object so strongly to proposals that would increase awareness of the risks involved in sex – not limited, of course, to pregnancy – while also recommending measures to mitigate unwanted pregnancies.

At its most controversial, the paper recommends that abortion be decriminalised “so that Maltese women who access abortion in other countries or through telemedicine do not face criminal proceedings and risk three years imprisonment, especially when accessing local health services for possible post-abortion complications.”

It suggests that all women in Malta be provided with access to safe and legal abortion through the public health system and licensed private providers, at least in the following four circumstances: when it is necessary to save a woman’s life or to preserve a woman’s physical and mental health, in cases of rape or incest and in cases of fatal foetus impairment.

Regarding the first recommendation: as has time and again been pointed out, ‘decriminalisation’ is not the same as ‘legalisation’. The question here is not whether abortion should become legal; but whether there should be criminal penalties for women caught up in desperate circumstances. One is entitled to an opinion either way; but certainly it is not an unreasonable or extremist request.

The second recommendation does provide for the legal provision of abortion in certain circumstances. In at least one of the outlined scenarios – ‘to save a woman’s life’ ­– this is something that already happens, albeit in the absence of any legal framework. Given a choice between saving the mother’s or the foetus’ life, it is accepted practice to opt for the mother (for reasons that are too complex to go into here). All that would be changed by the proposal is that the decision (and, therefore, the possible responsibility) would no longer be at the sole discretion of the medical practitioner.

It is an important difference, because one cannot predict the future. At present, a doctor would be excused for aborting in those circumstances. There may come a time – and we have come close in the recent past – when the authorities take a more fundamentalist approach.

As for the rest, there is room for discussion – not all will agree with the ‘rape’, ‘incest’ or ‘fatal impairment’ arguments. But a serious discussion cannot take place with so much hysterical noise in the foreground. It is time to stop the vilification, and start concentrating on the issue itself.