Criminalising abortion doesn’t save unborn lives. It just exposes women to danger

All our abortion ban really achieves in practice is to drive the entire practice underground – and thus expose women in Malta to serious, possibly life-threatening danger – without, it must be said, ever saving a single unborn life

I shall have to admit that the timing of this week’s events has placed me in a bit of a quandary.

Like many others, I was a little perplexed by Marlene Farrugia’s bolt-from-the-blue initiative last Wednesday. This is, after all, the same Marlene Farrugia who – just four years ago – accused former prime minister Joseph Muscat of wanting to “introduce abortion because he has no regard for the dignity of human life whether it is a frozen or unfrozen embryo.” She also voted against embryo freezing in Parliament, on that basis; and she even went as far as to oppose the contraceptive pill, on the grounds that it is ‘abortive’.

I need hardly add, of course, that she was fully supported in those views by her partner (and fellow MP, representing PD at the time) Godfrey Farrugia… who, over the years, has been even more outspoken in his opposition to all things even remotely ‘abortive’.

And yet, this same staunchly pro-life couple has just co-presented a private member’s bill to decriminalise abortion: a move that has rightly been described as a ‘historic first’ for Malta… but which, let’s face it, is also a torpedo fired directly into the engine-room of the Maltese political establishment (which has consistently swept the entire issue under the carpet for decades).

So what can I say? As someone who has publicly advocated the decriminalisation of abortion for years, I can only welcome this sudden – and, to be honest, somewhat bizarre – change of heart.

But coming as it does from a political duo that has an entire history of ‘playing political games’… I can’t help but ask myself the same question that seems to be on everyone’s lips, all of a sudden.

What, exactly, are the Farrugias really playing at here?

Besides: precisely because I do agree with the contents of Farrugia’s private member’s bill… I also have to question the strategy behind its timing. If the aim is really to kick-start a discussion that will lead to meaningful change… I can’t think of a worse way to achieve it, than by batting the ball directly into the court of two political parties that are both resolutely opposed to actually changing the status quo.

Procedurally, this bill seems to be doomed from the very outset. As has been pointed out by others – including my colleague Matthew Vella, in this newspaper – it has to be approved by the House Business Committee before it can even be discussed at all (let alone voted on). And there are a couple of small problems there.

One, the committee itself is composed of five men – Health Minister Chris Fearne, justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis, Labour Whip Glenn Bedingfield, Nationalist Whip Robert Cutajar, and PN deputy leader David Agius. And without in any way holding them responsible for a gender that they had no say in actually choosing, at the moment of their own conception: surely, it cannot be right that a committee of five men – no matter how well-intentioned – should now get to decide whether Malta’s Parliament debates a law which ultimately concerns the reproductive health of women.

For the same reason, incidentally, I cannot agree with those who argue that ‘this is a woman’s issue; therefore, men should just stay out of it altogether’. In this context, that argument merely supplies the House Business Committee with all the justification it needs to simply place Marlene Farrugia’s bill on the backburner… forever.

In other words:  no discussion; no vote; no change… everything just stays as it is.

The second problem, however, is that those five men (again, through no fault of their own) represent two political parties that have every reason under the sun to not want this issue debated at all. For reasons which are too obvious to even bother spelling out, it is simply not in the interest of either the Labour or Nationalist Party to raise this notorious political bogey-man, at this precise juncture in time: i.e., just a few months before an election.

And – unpleasant though it is to have to say this – we all know that both Labour and PN are only ever concerned with their own interests… and not with the interests of all the people (including the relative majority of the Maltese population which actually agrees with decriminalisation) they supposedly represent in Parliament.

Being experienced politicians in their own right, both Marlene and Godfrey Farrugia know this perfectly well. Surely, they will not have expected their bill to be eagerly and enthusiastically placed on the agenda for discussion, by a political duopoly that would sooner slit its own wrists, than be forced to finally confront this particular issue (of all things).

So… why did they present the bill at all, when they know that it has an ice cube’s chance in hell of actually getting approved by a Parliamentary majority? Where’s the sense in this initiative?  What is the strategy behind tabling it precisely now…?

Hence, I suppose, the quandary I mentioned earlier. The way things fell out this week, I shall have the opportunity to ask Marlene Farrugia those very questions directly (I write before my interview, which appears here in this same newspaper.)

So any speculation of my own is, at this stage, kind of useless, really. Instead, I shall simply outline my own reasons for agreeing wholeheartedly with the stated aims of the bill: starting with the most obvious.

It proposes ‘decriminalising’ abortion… in other words, removing the abortion ban from the Criminal Code, where it is subject to the threat of a maximum three-year prison sentence for women who terminate their own pregnancy (and the doctors who assist them), under any circumstance whatsoever.

Leaving aside my own personal opinion – i.e., that it is simply uncivilised to threaten women with prison, for the grave crime of having found themselves in what is ultimately a crisis situation – the harsh reality is that, even from the perspective of those who are trying to save unborn lives… the law, as it stands today, just doesn’t work.

There is plenty of statistical evidence that anywhere up to 400 Maltese women a year seek to abort an unwanted pregnancy; and it cannot be a coincidence that this figure is (proportionally speaking, of course) considerably higher than the corresponding statistic in other European countries where abortion is not only ‘decriminalised’, but perfectly legal.

On top of that, we also have to look at the circumstances under which all those unborn foetuses are annually aborted. The lucky women who have means of their own (or access to robust family network structures) have the luxury of seeking their abortions in clinics overseas. The rest, however…?

Mercifully, we are living in an age when the options at their disposal are infinitely safer than they ever used to be in the past. I think it is reasonable to assume that most clandestine abortions, these days, are achieved through pills available for purchase over the Internet. It is no longer a case (as it was, just a few years ago) where the less fortunate women had no option but to resort to a ‘back-street abortion’…  under circumstances that were famously likened to a ‘butcher’s shop’, by a gynaecologist quoted on Xarabank in the 1990s.

But still… it remains a decision taken by women on their own, without legal access to any proper medical advice. For let’s face it: if the law stipulates a three-year prison sentence for women terminating a pregnancy… you can hardly expect Maltese women to be very keen on confiding in a gynaecologist, or even their family GP.

No: the way things stand today, those women are left entirely to their own devices, to come up with their own solutions to medical problems. And that’s called ‘self-medication’… which, as any doctor will confirm, can be highly (but HIGHLY) dangerous.

And if you don’t believe me (as you probably shouldn’t: I’m not exactly a medical professional, am I?) then the least you could do is listen to doctors such as former PD chairman Anthony Buttigieg… who, unlike myself, is actually against abortion on principle.

“By decriminalising abortion, it will make it easier for those women, many in a state of panic or psychological distress at the time, to seek advice and use those services. They will not if they are afraid that by doing so they risk being criminally prosecuted […] And if they do, many will suffer psychological issues that can only be addressed if they can come forward to discuss them….”

Seriously, though: can anyone out there really argue against that… without resorting to instant, hysterical non-sequiturs such as ‘abortion is murder’, ‘not in my name’, ‘how dare you’, etc., etc.?

There are, of course, many other issues to contend with. In those (admittedly rare) instances where an abortion may be considered a medical necessity, for health reasons… Maltese doctors are often left with no option but to wait until a pregnant women’s life really is in danger, before actually intervening. Surely, that cannot be right…

Ultimately, then, all our abortion ban really achieves in practice is to drive the entire practice underground – and thus expose women in Malta to serious, possibly life-threatening danger – without, it must be said, ever saving a single unborn life.

That, in a nutshell, is the situation that Marlene Farrugia’s private member’s bill actually intends to address, once and for all. So yes, of course I can only agree with her, and fully support her initiative. My only concern, however, is… is she really the right person to be piloting this reform, all things considered?  And – much more importantly – will it really work in practice?

I don’t know, myself; but I guess we’ll find out soon enough…