[WATCH] 'This is not a popularity contest' | Lara Dimitrijevic

The Women’s Rights Foundation has stirred a hornet’s nest by launching a position paper proposing – among other things – ‘legal access to safe abortion’ in at least four ‘exceptional circumstances’. But to Lara Dimitrijevic, human rights lawyer and WMF chairperson, access to abortion is a matter of individual rights, not popularity

Lara Dimitrijevic on abortion and the woman's rights to choose

When presenting the WRF’s position paper last week, you talked about abortion in the context of a ‘human rights issue’. It is however by no means accepted that abortion is a fundamental human right. What makes this issue a human rights concern, in your opinion?

Let’s start with the European Convention of Human Rights. Article 8 deals specifically with the right to private and family life. This is compounded by the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which also says that a woman has a right to time and space, bearing of children, and so on. From the word go, reproductive rights are also fundamental human rights. But the problem with fundamental human rights is that you can put one against the other... what are we talking about here? A woman’s right. It’s not an issue that is related to man. The right to bear children is specifically related to women... and it is a human right.

But we are talking here about the right to end a pregnancy, which is not the same thing as the right to bear children. In fact, many would argue it’s the opposite...

The right to bear children, or not to bear children – to space them – is all part of the right to private and family life. There is also the right to live in dignity; so if something has led me to end up pregnant, in a situation where I cannot go on with that pregnancy, I have the right to live in dignity. I have the right to my life, too, as a woman. If, for example, the pregnancy is going to be detrimental to the mother’s life...

In fact, that is one of the four scenarios where you recommend legal access to safe abortion. The others were rape, incest and fatal foetal impairment. The KPMD has just come out strongly against that last proposal, on the grounds (inter alia) that it would lead to eugenics. How do you respond to that argument?

Again, let’s go back to fundamental human rights. I like looking at things from a rights-based approach. If – and it would have to depend on medical science – a woman is told that the foetus is going to die anyway...  then even from the child’s perspective, there is the right to live with dignity. I think it is very cruel, really, to go through with the pregnancy in that situation. It’s cruel both to the child, but also to the parents...

What would happen in that situation in today’s legal framework?

As things stand today, the mother would have to go through with the full pregnancy... unless, of course, they have the option – and it happens: we know that it happens – to travel and have an abortion abroad.

With regard to the earlier example of a threat to the mother’s life: there is also an argument that it already happens in such cases. When doctors have to choose between saving the mother or the foetus, the accepted practice is to save the mother. If that’s the case, why is there need to enshrine this convention into law?

‘It happens, it doesn’t happen’... the reality is that we don’t really know. There’s a lot we have to assume.... for instance, that in cases of cancer, the mother would still be given treatment, even if it will result in an abortion. But to me, it all boils down to choice. You have to put it into a legal structure. You cannot simply assume it’s there... and yet it is not there, because to me, it is about choice. You have to give that person a choice...

At the same time, the four ‘exceptional cases’ are only a small part of the full proposals, which also touch upon sexual health policy, education, and so forth. Malta has made several amendments to this national sexual health policy, as well as education, over the years... yet the actual law on abortion has not been amended, in any way, for decades. It still uses terminology that predates modern contraceptive methods, for instance. How do you account for our continued resistance to the idea of even updating that law to present-day realities?

Part of it is down to insularity, and the sense of wanting to have our ‘culture’... to stick to our ‘identity’, and to the belief that we are ‘different’. Of course, it’s also the influence of Catholicism. And indoctrination. For me, that is what it is. Even when one looks at the negotiations that took place to join the European Union: on top of everything else, [the abortion ban] was something that had to be ‘sanctified’, if I can call it that. It had to be ‘protected’. Which is also quite disappointing, really, to see that even the European Union, the rest of Europe, had no problem with that. It’s OK to throw the woman under the bus... that’s fine, as long as everything else gets going.

This raises a curious paradox. The EU is committed to ensuring ‘safe access to abortion’ in third (mostly) developing countries; yet Malta has been an EU member state since 2004, and the same rights that the EU actively pursues elsewhere are still denied to women here. Are Maltese women second-class EU citizens?

Yes, very much so. Maltese women are very much being discriminated against. Perhaps we’re not particularly interesting because of our small population. It’s kind of like we’re non-existent, really. That is also one the reasons why we founded the organisation: because women here have never had a voice. They have somehow always been shushed and hushed in this country. Something had to be done. We are not second class citizens; we’re not there to be discriminated against. We are human beings, with our own individual rights.

At the same time, however, the WRF seems isolated on this issue. Most other women’s rights organisations have not supported your proposals. Some have done the opposite. How do you account for this divergence?

There's a lot we have to assume... for instance, that in cases of cancer, the mother would still be given treatment, even if it will result in an abortion

To start off with, there have been some organisations – kudos to them – which spoke out. For example, the Network of Young Women Leaders, and Graffiti. On the other hand, let’s not forget the taboo and stigma that shrouds the topic. That’s another reason why we wanted to do this: to say, it’s OK, we can talk about. It’s fine to talk about it. But then again, even as organisations, we depend on funding... you never know how that’s going to happen. They [women’s rights organisations] might be fragmented. But we have received private messages of support, which is very encouraging for us.

You have also received a lot of, let’s say, ‘negative’ responses... which have even extended to death threats. Is that a factor affecting the reluctance of women to discuss this issue? And on a human level, how do you cope with that sort of extreme reaction?

I am not afraid. If I were afraid, I wouldn’t do the job that I do. As an organisation, we confront perpetrators every day. I confront them in a court of law. I have been threatened; my tyres have been slashed, I have been stalked... I’ve received messages and calls at home, telling me who my children are... but I’m not afraid. Nothing is going to stop me from fighting for women’s rights. [...] This is a debate that is going to happen anyhow... we’re going to make it happen.

That, too, is debatable. There are forces at work that want to stifle the discussion. In the recent past, there were efforts to entrench existing abortion laws into the Constitution, precisely so that this debate would never take place. What makes you so sure it will happen now?

Our position paper has to be seen as a full package. We cannot just talk about abortion; otherwise, nothing makes sense. This is like a chain. We also have to talk about a national action plan. We have to talk about sex. Another taboo subject... ooh, I said the word ‘sex’. We have to educate our children about sex, and about healthy relationships. We have to provide contraception: all forms of contraception... and make it accessible. We’re saying, let’s go for free contraception. Portugal has done it; and once Portugal introduced free contraception, the rates of abortion went down. One [issue] is tied to the other. We cannot just talk about abortion. But we have to start by trying to eliminate the stigma around the topic.

All these recommendations require legislation to be passed through Parliament, which in turn means that you also need a level of political support. Yet all political parties have repeatedly declared themselves pro-life, and the three in parliament have all made it clear they disagree with your proposals. How do you propose to change the political status quo?

That is why we issued this position paper: to highlight the lack of understanding and awareness that exists around this issue. I think that, once it is talked about, and debated in a healthy way... and we’ve had people approach us and say, ‘You know, actually, come to think of it: what you’re saying makes sense...’. It shouldn’t surprise us, either. Over the years, Malta’s come a long way. We have civil unions, gay marriage, cohabitation... so I don’t see why this country cannot also try to understand, and discuss this by listening to each other. I think a healthy debate would change things.

There has, however, been some discussion about the details of the position paper. One criticism is that your proposals represent the ‘thin end of the wedge’: today, the discussion is only about women in danger of dying, or foetal anomalies... tomorrow, it will be about abortion on demand. Isn’t this concern partly justified?  Isn’t this ultimately about a woman’s right to choose, beyond exceptional or extreme circumstances?

It’s not just us saying that women have the right to choose. To go back to fundamental human rights: women do have the right to choose. I’ve already mentioned the relevant conventions, but even the European Human Rights Commission have repeatedly stressed this on their previous visits to Malta; and there are rulings by the European Court of Human Rights. The right to abortion is not, in itself, a specific human right; but the right of access to safe abortion is.  That’s it, basically... we are breaching women’s fundamental human rights. If a woman wants access to an abortion: who am I to judge, who am I to condemn? It happens anyhow, just the same. But not to have it accessible, and legalised – without the stigma – in those specific circumstances: to me, that is a case of inhuman and degrading treatment.

Yet it could be argued – I’ve heard this argument myself, coming from Maltese women – that abortion is already accessible...

...  to the privileged...

... yes, but the argument also goes that Maltese women, in the main, actually prefer it that way. Even if abortion were legal, and clinics were available locally, they would still go abroad to avoid all the stigma and hullaballoo. In a word, there is a level at which everyone (or almost everyone) is comfortable with the status quo. How much truth is there to that view?

First of all: it IS for the privileged, let’s face it. It’s true that there are cheap airlines nowadays, but not everyone can afford to go abroad and have an abortion. But again, I would say it’s also a question of insularity. I have my own personal opinion about this. It’s as though we’ve cocooned ourselves here: we’ve created this image that we have of ourselves, that we’re Catholics – it’s a big part of our national identity – but at the same time, we’re hypocritical about it. Because we still go abroad and do things differently. And that’s fine, because it happens there... not here. Here, we have to pretend. Even among the ‘privileged’: they’ll go and do it abroad. They won’t do it here, just in case the neighbours talk about it. [...]   I think education has a big part to play here. Once we educate ourselves, and understand... we would have to be in a position where we’re ashamed or want to hide. Again, as a country we’ve come really far on other matters. I am sure it can happen when we talk about sex education and contraception, too. Let’s face it, we still have this mentality with children going to buy condoms. It’s ‘embarrassing’. Why? Why should it be ‘embarrassing’ to buy a packet of condoms?

Meanwhile, surveys continue indicate an overwhelming pro-life majority: according to our latest poll, as high as 90%. You have separately argued that these figures may be inflated on account of the associated stigma. What do you think is the real situation on the ground? Do you have indications of a groundswell change in national opinion?

Let’s go back to the fact that what we’re talking about here are fundamental human rights. It’s not a matter of popularity; it’s a matter about that individual. And women have approached us with their stories. That is why we did what we did; because we need to give a voice to those individual rights... those individual stories. It’s not about popularity. This is something we really have to keep in mind. But yes, we’ve had cases where people have told us, ‘Before, I couldn’t even think about the word ‘abortion’. But I’ve read the paper, and I can understand what your reasoning is.’ Yes, those people might possibly consider... definitely decriminalising: because they would see that they can’t judge those individuals anyhow. I think just that, in itself, is a ray of hope. But I need to stress once more that this is not about popularity ratings. It’s about individual rights.  This is not a referendum issue. I’m very disappointed – well, not ‘disappointed’, in the sense that I understand what Ireland is going through: that it has to amend its Constitution – but this is not an issue to be decided by a popularity contest. Far from it.