Let’s not abort all discussion...

To banish all discussion is therefore also to banish ways in which existing legislation can be made more effective

A public call for a ‘national discussion about abortion’ seems to have elicited heated reactions from many quarters. Up to a point, this is to be expected. Abortion is a sensitive topic, both locally and abroad. There is, in fact, nothing remotely ‘exceptional’ about such reactions:  similar, if not identical, responses would have been forthcoming in almost any country in the world.

There is, however, much that is exceptional about the context in which this debate Is unfolding. Malta is unique in the European Union, in that our legislation prohibits abortion in all circumstances, without any provisos to (among other things) safeguard the health or life of the mother.

There are other factors that set Malta apart: with the exception of solitary (often stifled) voices here and there, all parties seem to converge on a pro-life, anti-abortion platform. This is, in turn, buttressed by surveys which indicate an overwhelming majority against the introduction of abortion in this country.

From this perspective, public reactions do appear a little disproportionate. Given the unassailable political cross-party consensus that exists, it is inconceivable that abortion will be introduced any time soon. Why, then, the outpour of shock and outrage at the mere suggestion that the issue should be debated? Is it propelled by fear of any real, possible change to the status quo? Or is it fear of the discussion in itself… on the grounds that it might force us to look also at the street-level realities surrounding this issue: the fact that a considerable number of Maltese women travel abroad each year to seek abortions… or the possibility that unsafe backstreet abortions take place here in Malta?

If so, the fear is – like all phobias – entirely irrational. To ‘discuss abortion’ does not automatically mean to debate the pros and cons of the issue itself. It does not have to entail taking any decision to change the legal status of abortion in Malta (which is, in any case, practically impossible under the present circumstance). One aspect that has never been discussed is the price to be paid for avoiding the discussion. For while the law offers only punishment (18 months imprisonment) for ‘women;’ and ‘doctors’… it does not lay down clear, modern parameters that define the crime to begin with.

This, in turn, explains why there have never, in recent years, been any successful prosecutions of abortions or attempted abortions: put into practice, the relevant article of the Criminal Code proves to be worthless.

To banish all discussion is therefore also to banish ways in which existing legislation can be made more effective… from the perspective of those who agree with the concept of ’punishing’ women under these delicate circumstances.

Here, however, the scope for discussion broadens considerably. If one agrees with the scope of the law, it does not follow he or she must also agree with the details. Privately, many people might disagree with the penal provisions in this law. Depending on the circumstances of any given case, they may feel uncomfortable that a woman (or doctor) should be further penalised after already having had to take a difficult and possibly traumatic decision.

One could argue, therefore, that a national discussion is needed to see if Malta’s abortion law is fit for purpose in the 21st century… without necessarily also discussing the introduction of abortion, per se.

Nonetheless, in a free and democratic country, one cannot shut the door even to this possibility. No matter how small in number, minorities should have the right to freely express themselves on any topic, within the parameters already proscribed by law. Arguing in favour of abortion – considered a right in many other countries – clearly falls well within the fundamental right to free speech. (How effective such a discussion could be, in the present climate, is however another matter altogether).

There are other concerns also. It is debatable whether present legislation is serviceable, in light of recent reforms that also touch on reproductive issues: primarily, IVF and embryo freezing. And yet, despite so many valid points for discussion… what passes for a political debate has so far been characterised mostly by loud proclamations of personal opinion. It seems that, on the rare occasions when Maltese politicians even speak of such matters at all… they feel the whole point of the discussion is to provide themselves with an automatic bandwagon to jump onto.

This may even be a politically rewarding tactic, in a country where so many share those views anyway. But from the perspective of addressing the issue on the ground, it is entirely useless.

Knowing that such and such a politician is ‘firmly against abortion under all circumstances’ adds nothing to a debate about – for instance – what services exist locally for unplanned pregnancies? What level of responsibility does the State have to assume for children born as a result of its own policies? Can the situation be made safer for women caught up in these circumstances? Should the law be clearer on the precise legal parameters for the medical profession?

These are all questions that will have to be answered sooner or later. It would be unwise to abort the discussion before it even starts.