A Greek tragedy

Maturity demands that we see further than the crass hypocrisy and narcissism of Marlene Farrugia, and consider instead the importance of what the pro-choice movement is proposing

It has been one hell of a week. Certainly enough, there’s the Greek tragedy that befell Keith Schembri, but also news of a private members’ bill for the decriminalisation of abortion in Malta.

Now in ancient Greek theatre, a tragedy is a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.

When this week, I saw Marlene Farrugia as an independent candidate move a private members’ bill for the decriminalisation of abortion, I admit I felt this was a noble initiative, but also a bit of a diabolical choice for an MP, and possibly bad timing by the pro-choice movement.

Marlene Farrugia has no shame, having spent years together with her partner Godfrey Farrugia not only spearheading the anti-divorce campaign, but hitting out at any attempt of introducing some law deemed ‘non pro-life’, like IVF and embryo freezing.

Maturity demands that we see further than the crass hypocrisy and narcissism of Marlene Farrugia, and consider instead the importance of what the pro-choice movement is proposing.

So in that respect, Malta’s pro choice movement is very brave for the role they have taken in this debate and their spirit of campaigning. Decriminalising abortion is not just a formality that looks at the situation faced by many women who carry out an abortion and live in fear of being criminally charged and incarcerated. Here it has not happened simply because there has been no witch-hunt in the country.

Yet Malta is one of just three countries that still consider a woman who terminates their pregnancy as a criminal. One of those countries is the Vatican, which is in reality is not a State but a vestige populated by ageing men representing the last piece of territory from the time of the Papal States – and to this day, they still do tyranny, corruption and hypocrisy quite well.

Yet Maltese people’s opposition to abortion is fuelled by this identity marker of religious faith but also the failure of politicians to open up a debate and just toe this tone-deaf line of being against abortion come what may.

The pro-choice movement knows that the majority of the Maltese public are against abortion, and that if they had to take the matter to a referendum stage they would lose it hands down.

But at this stage we are not years away from seeing abortion or even decriminalisation of abortion a reality – politicians are unwilling to rock the boat, but surely enough civil society is growing muscle.

For all the criticism levelled at the Dom Mintoff years, no one can deny that Mintoff had the audacity of confronting the subject. According to a declaration by historian and former Labour official Dominic Fenech, under Mintoff’s leadership the party had passed a resolution in the late 1970s that obliged a Labour Party in government never to charge women who carried out an abortion, despite the provisions of the Criminal Code.

That ‘excuse’ is a perfect opportunity for the Labour Party today to revisit that commitment some 40 years later.

For all his defects, Mintoff was a visionary who had the guts to stand up to the traditional bastions of conservatism and the upper middle class, the Church and the old, moneyed tribes that lived off speculative business and rent-seeking. Of course, he was replete with contradictions. Yet today’s Labour Party needs people who can speak up, and say their piece in defiance of the populist mediocrity they are sometimes expected to bow to.

I know several MPs who agree with abortion but are unwilling to raise the subject, fearing that they will be shot down by their own party and more still by the Opposition, which has traditionally always weaponised abortion against their enemies, however big or small.

This is a country that when finalising its treaty for accession to become a full member of the European Union, it actually convinced the EU to enter into a commitment in the treaty that would ensure that the issue of abortion would always be a matter of national sovereignty. That was 2003 and the Nationalist Party was scared that the abortion issue would be used by the detractors of membership – Labour, then in opposition – to spike its accession bid.

Things have changed today. Labour is no longer the anti-EU party, and indeed its civil liberties programme has taken the country to European standards. But since it is Marlene Farrugia who is filing the amendment Bill, it is very likely that a pro-choice MP in Labour will find an excuse to just say nothing.

Still, this initiative will crack the high bastions of conservatism in Malta. It might not bring it down at once, at least not for the moment, but it has got us talking. And anyway, it is indeed high time that we speak up as to why abortion should be decriminalised in Malta, and understand why other civilised and modern and democratic Western countries introduced abortion.

Those who oppose abortion, may do so on religious grounds or other ethical stands. For those whose piousness tends to be typically shaky when it comes to consumerism, sexual habits, or paying taxes, their hypocrisy is well noted.

When Maltese candidates for the European Commission like Tonio Borg and Helena Dalli faced a stiff reception, they were very careful not to shoot themselves in the foot. They did not want to ruin their chance of losing that €270,000 salary by waving some crazy anti-abortion card. Here in Malta it was a different story altogether: Tonio Borg wanted to pitch-fork the ‘liberal elite’ and stick abortion into the Constitution. Helena Dalli was more or less cautious despite her liberal pedigree.

At the end of the day, none of the politicians who are on some progressive ticket will ever take the plunge on abortion. Which means to change the law, it will one day have to be a referendum.

Alternatively... it could be another politician who against all odds comes up with radical reforms, just as Mintoff did with civil marriage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality or Muscat in 2013 with equal marriage.