Middle finger to the young and educated as PN finds unity on abortion

ANALYSIS | The PN may have rediscovered its conservative ethos and unity in opposing abortion even when the health of the mother is at risk. But could educated and young voters react to the re-edition of Bernard Grech’s ‘handmaid’s tale’?

Bernard Grech has left no ambiguity as to where the PN stands on abortion, coming out against an exception that would allow a pregnancy to be terminated if the woman's health is at risk
Bernard Grech has left no ambiguity as to where the PN stands on abortion, coming out against an exception that would allow a pregnancy to be terminated if the woman's health is at risk

The Nationalist Party has made it clear it will only support a law on termination of pregnancy limited to cases where the life of the mother is threatened. 

This limited view ignores other threats to women’s health. 

Like the learned critics of the 'Prudente law', clearly these opponents think the risk of disabilities like blindness in the case of mothers suffering from myopia, or even perinatal suicides in case of severe depressions, are not tantamount to sacrifice the life of the foetus to safeguard the health of the mother.

Government has proposed legislation to amend Malta's strict anti-abortion law by including exceptions if the woman's health or life are at risk thus eliminating the chances of doctors and women going to prison if a termination is necessary in these two circumstances. The Second Reading of the Bill starts in parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

Bernard Grech has clearly asserted his authority in leaving no room for ambiguity, as he had done previously on cannabis clubs, when he first hinted being in favour and then backtracking. Some may interpret this as a sign of the party’s compactness and a rediscovered right-wing ethos. It was surely a victory for conservatives in the party and a middle finger for any liberal tempted to vote for the PN out of spite for Labour. 

A simplistic reading of the situation is that the PN has finally discovered its identity, somewhere to the right of Giorgia Meloni and even Donald Trump.  

Yet, such a reading ignores a growing constituency of younger voters who follow the international news cycle, whose cultural digest of film and literature hails from a world where anti-abortion views are associated with the villains in the Handmaid’s Tale. They belong to a world in which the fightback by women has prevented Trump’s Republicans from taking over the Senate, and where women in Iran are in open revolt against the morality police. 

And while Maltese electorates tend to be more insular and anti-abortion feelings remain deep, surveys already show a chasm in outlooks on this issue between older and younger people, and tertiary-educated voters who agree with its decriminalisation: the latter groups are the most likely to say that they will not be voting in any forthcoming election.

READ ALSO: Hundreds rally to legalise abortion in Malta

The PN’s conservative lurch will further reinforce this view or even push more of these voters to Labour. Instead of challenging the government over the poor record of the police force on domestic violence, the PN has diverted public attention on its ideological aversion to female bodily autonomy. Despite being stuck in a deep hole, the PN keeps digging its grave.  

But the PN faces another problem, one tied to its strong identification with EU symbolism. Not only was it the party which campaigned for Malta to join the EU, a prospect which attracted liberals to a winning coalition which secured PN victories in 1998 and 2003, but even in more recent times it has continuously attacked Labour for its disrespect of European values on rule of law issues. 

The party now seems oblivious to a European reality shaped by the backlash against abortion rights in the US, which has increased momentum for enshrining abortion rights in the European charter of human rights. 

And even when conservatives win power as happened in Italy, the first pledge they make is to commit themselves not to touch abortion laws, as Giorgia Meloni did in Italy. 

One just wonders how someone like Roberta Metsola can identify with the PN’s opposition to abortion even in cases where the mother’s health is in danger. One thing is for sure: she only got elected in her post by clearly stating that her position on abortion will reflect that of the European Parliament. It was this declaration which ensured Emmanuel Macron’s crucial support for her. 

Labour should be intellectually honest 

Faced with the PN’s intransigence and extremism, Labour is in a comfortable position where anything it says on the issue appears more moderate, more empathic, and more sensible than statements made by Grech. 

But this should not be an excuse for not being intellectually honest. For there is an element of dishonesty in giving the impression that the change of law is just a technical response to a legal anomaly. 

While it is true that a reference to protecting the health – physical and mental – and not just the life of the woman, was necessary to prevent situations where doctors are left in an anomalous situation to wait until some imminent threat to life to intervene (as happened in the Prudente case), one cannot escape the reality that this change does open a can of worms. 

The abortion amendment was put forward by Health Minister Chris Fearne (centre), Justice Minister Jonathan Attard (left) and Reforms Parliamentary Secretary Rebecca Buttigieg
The abortion amendment was put forward by Health Minister Chris Fearne (centre), Justice Minister Jonathan Attard (left) and Reforms Parliamentary Secretary Rebecca Buttigieg

For example, back in 2007 when Poland still allowed women to have an abortion when the health of a mother was at risk, the European Court of Human Rights had awarded a Polish woman more than €25,000 in damages after she was refused an abortion despite warnings from her doctor that continuing the pregnancy could cause her to go blind. 

Alicja Tysiac suffered from severe myopia, and when she became pregnant for the third time in 2000, she consulted three ophthalmologists who each concluded her eyesight would be damaged further if she carried the pregnancy to term. However, despite Tysiac’s requests, all three doctors refused to issue a certificate for the pregnancy to be terminated on medical grounds, according to the court. After giving birth Tysiac suffered a retinal hemorrhage which caused her vision to deteriorate significantly and she has been declared disabled by a panel of doctors. At that time Poland only permitted abortion in cases of rape or incest, fetal abnormality, or danger to the life or health of the woman. The court ruled that Poland had no effective legal framework for pregnant women to assert their right to abortion on medical grounds. 

This clearly shows that by allowing abortion in cases where the health of the mother is at risk, Malta is also opening itself to similar legal cases if the State applies a very strict interpretation of the new law by limiting it to “grave” threats. Instead, what Labour should be saying is that no women should risk blindness or even suicide in cases where a pregnancy threatens the mental health of the mother. 

And while the 80 academics signing a petition expressing concern on the proposed law have a point in calling for clarifications on how to define “grave jeopardy” to “life and health” in the new law, suggesting that serious mental conditions suffered by the mother are not sufficient reasons to terminate a pregnancy, not only ignores the risk of perinatal suicides but underrates the importance of mental health issues. 

This is where Labour should stand up to be counted. Labour needs to choose between sitting on the fence by playing neutral, and standing up for women’s rights. Surely it does not have a mandate to introduce abortion on demand, but as a progressive party it has to eventually earn such a mandate. 

And yet, with the PN lurching to the hard right on such an issue, it can still afford to sit on the fence. For anything Chris Fearne and Robert Abela say on this issue, is bound to sound more sensible and moderate than the PN’s absolutism.

READ ALSO: PN opposes abortion exception if woman’s health is at risk