It was bound to happen someday. After years of platitudes, buzzwords and impassioned declarations that unborn people have the same rights as everyone else, Malta’s Parliament has been presented with an actual bill to decriminalise abortion, forcing the parties to react to it.
This is no thanks to PL or PN but to Marlene Farrugia, an independent MP who has been largely silent throughout this legislature but who appears to want to leave a political legacy behind her.
Yet we still don’t have a proper indication about where PL or PN actually stand on this issue.
This is what PL and PN have said about the issue so far and what their statements mean.
Following a parliamentary group meeting, Labour issued the below statement which was neither here nor there.
“The PL parliamentary group convened today to discuss the motion that was proposed by an Opposition MP on 12th May, 2021.” “Discussion on a topic as sensitive as abortion should take place by society in a mature and free manner, and shouldn’t be choked by motions like this.”
“The discussion shouldn’t be monopolised by political parties in Parliament and should be based on honesty and respect towards different opinions, without sensationalism or condemnation and against stigma.”
“The Prime Minister has already expressed his clear belief on the topic, against the legalisation of abortion. However, he still believes that he must closely follow discussions which are taking place in society.”
The PL starts by stressing that the motion was filed by a member of the Opposition, therefore instantly disassociating itself from it. By not naming Marlene Farrugia, it almost makes it sound like the motion was proposed by a PN MP.
It then makes a strange point that the motion will ‘choke’ debate on abortion, drawing a line between ‘society’ and ‘Parliament’ which completely ignores the fact that the entire point of Parliament is that MPs are supposed to represent society.
PL takes it a step further by advising people to discuss abortion in an open and respectful manner, but without giving a practical example of what this discussion should look like. In the party’s eyes, if MPs start discussing abortion, then they will “monopolise” the debate.
This kind of logic is extremely confusing. First of all, society is already discussing abortion and has been for years – people don’t need the permission of political parties to start discussing a topic.
Abortion is a very emotional topic and public debate does tend to see some colourful adjectives flung around, but if PL disagrees with this then surely the best way forward is to lead by example.
Instead, it hides behind the words “sensationalism”, “condemnation” and “anti-stigma” without giving any example as to what kind of language it is calling out. Does the PL think it’s sensationalist to call women who carry out murderers? We don’t know.
Secondly, the argument that a parliamentary debate on abortion will “monopolise” the abortion debate is ludicrous. Obviously, a lot of public attention will be given to Parliament seeing as MPs enjoy the highest platform in the land, but the entire point of lobbying for legal change is to see these proposals end up in the House.
People can discuss legal changes all they like but only MPs have the power to actually change the law. Parliamentary discussions don’t monopolise debates; they take political decisions on debates.
It stands to reason that if PL is in favour of a public, non-parliamentary debate, it is also in favour of the possibility of a parliamentary debate in the future. But if not now, then when?
If the PL is implying that they should wait for a public consensus on whether abortion decriminalisation is right or wrong before taking a decision, then they’re gong to have to wait forever. If they’re hoping for the survey numbers to move very clearly in one direction, then they’re taking the cowardly way out and abandoning Joseph Muscat’s motto that “politicians should guide, and not be guided by surveys”.
If they want to be seen as the leaders of this debate, perhaps after the next election, and not just following Marlene Farrugia, then they’re just being petty.
As for the final line that Prime Minister Robert Abela has come out against legalising abortion, that’s completely irrelevant to the debate because the motion calls for decriminalisation, and not legalisation. PL knows this and it seems it just added this sentence to achieve some kind of pro-life/pro-choice ‘balance’.
What about PN? They started off with a pretty clear statement, which showed their adamant opposition to Marlene Farrugia’s bill.
“The PN absolutely believes in life from conception till death and therefore can never be in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion. The PN is in favour of taking the necessary measures in favour of everyone’s sexual health, without endangering the lives of babies before and after they are born.”
However, it got more complicated when PN leader Bernard Grech was interviewed on NET today and asked to expand on this statement. This is what he said”
“The statement clearly established the principle that the PN believes, and this is enshrined in its statute, that life has value from conception till death and that we’re ready to defend it. We cannot escape this principle. If we value life, then we must protect it.”
“They try to say that we want to send women to jail… as if we want that. We want to protect life, the law isn’t there to punish you but to act as a deterrent. If I park badly, I’ll get fined; fines aren’t there to punish me but to deter me.”
“That is the principle. The law is just a deterrent and in fact women didn’t go to jail for carrying out abortions over the past 50 years. It doesn’t mean abortions didn’t take place, but it’s still a deterrent.”
“We want to protect life, because without life you have nothing. But we can’t close our eyes to women who tell us that they want more attention in our policies. I had clearly said in my leadership campaign that I want to listen to the challenges faced by women seeking abortions and I still want to listen to them.”
Grech starts out by saying that life starts from conception and that the PN must “defend life”. With this principle in mind, it stands to reason that abortion shouldn’t be allowed.
However, his argument then starts to get extremely confusing. First he says that women who carry out abortions shouldn’t go to jail, but then follows it up by saying that the law – which envisages jail time for women who cause their own miscarriages and doctors who carry out abortions – should remain in place.
So what exactly does Grech want? His argument that the law is meant to deter behaviour and not punish people is a completely non-starter. At the end of the day, the reason laws deter behaviour in the first place is because of the risk of punishment – deterrence and punishment are intrinsically connected.
He compares it to the existence of fines for people who park badly, which is quite ironic considering that parking on a double yellow line isn’t a crime like abortion is. Why not compare it to murder?
If Grech thinks abortion is comparable to parking tickets, it means he believes abortion should be decriminalised. And if he believes abortion should be decriminalised, it begs the question as to why the PN is opposing Marlene Farrugia’s bill in the first place.
Just because the law isn’t being enforced to its maximum extent right now doesn’t guarantee that it never will be. All it will take is a few zealous police officers and a judge with a certain opinion on what constitutes morality and women will get sent to jail for carrying out abortions.
And there will be nothing Bernard Grech will be able to do about it – the only thing he can do is strip them off this power in the first place.
For a country that has some of the most anti-abortion laws in the world, one would have expected the major political parties to mount a stronger defence of them.
Instead, PL has abdicated its responsibility to discuss it while pretending it’s just awaiting a mature exterior discussion. PN first took a strong stance but then twisted itself into knots after realising it was basically advocating the right of courts to jail women who carry out an abortion.
Their reactions expose the fact that rather than seeking to do their job as legislators who make sure our laws are up to date and minimising harm, both parties are more focused on how many votes they will win and lose. Abortion is a tricky topic that will lead to criticism either way, so they will keep tiptoeing around it.
Clearly, no MP feels strongly enough about this issue to break ranks with the party either.
And ultimately we still don’t know where either party actually stands when it comes to the decriminalisation of abortion.