No political party in Malta has ever come out in favour of abortion and yet it managed to end up as the main topic of discussion throughout this election campaign. Pro-choice groups have formed, pro-life billboards have been erected, stringent declarations have been signed, and two small parties have practically imploded.
Let’s track back how this debate developed:
President George Vella has pledged to resign before signing an abortion bill into law
Under Adrian Delia’s leadership, the Nationalist Party has been repeatedly dropping hints and rumours that the Labour government is secretly planning to legalise abortion.
Most notably, in April 2018. Delia voted against a law which granted more rights to victims of domestic violence because it didn’t specifically refer to the unborn child as a family member as the old law had.
A few months later, the PN media suggested that Education Minister Evarist Bartolo would be appointed President if he gave Castille his word that he would sign a bill that will legalise abortion. As it turned out, George Vella was appointed President instead, and one of his first statements was to pledge to resign if he was ever asked to sign an abortion bill.
The splitting of AD
Arnold Cassola resigned from the AD to take a strong stand against abortion
In February, a British abortion service provider expanded to Malta to help Maltese women seeking their services overseas. The lack of a reaction by political parties to this news prompted Alternattiva Demokratika MEP candidate Mina Tolu to condemn the taboo surrounding the abortion debate, warning that the silence is only breeding stigma and harming many people in the process.
Former AD leader Arnold Cassola asked the Green Party to unequivocally state that it is against abortion, but when current leader Carmel Cacopardo said that the topic is up for discussion, Cassola suddenly quit the party he had helped found 30 years ago. Cassola is still running as an MEP candidate and surveys project he could well very split AD’s already minute vote and condemn his former party to one of its worst results in history.
March saw the launch of Voice for Choice, Malta’s first ever pro-choice lobby group, and a survey among university students which found that 40% of them were in favour of legalising abortion.
Adrian Delia’s ‘referendum on abortion’
Adrian Delia has described the election as a ‘referendum on abortion’
The stage was set for the MEP election campaign and Delia wasted no time making the protection of the unborn one of his major platforms. The Opposition leader pounced on a clause within the election manifesto of the Party of European Socialists (PES), the EU political grouping the PL forms part of, which said everyone must have “access to their full sexual and reproductive rights”.
Interpreting this as a pro-choice stance, Delia warned that the PL’s signature of the manifesto betrayed its true intentions on abortion. The PN kept up the momentum, erecting a billboard of a newborn baby to promote its pro-life stance and repeating the abortion warning at several rallies.
It came to a head when Delia labelled the MEP election as a “referendum on abortion”, insisting that anyone who is truly pro-life cannot vote for candidates who form part of a European political group that has declared itself as pro-choice.
Joseph Muscat responded quite unusually, stating he has no mandate to introduce abortion but that it should be a topic of serious discussion – the first time he has said that.
Meanwhile, Gift of Life president Paul Vincent accused Delia of acting irresponsibly by turning abortion into a “vote-catching exercise” instead of as a topic that unites the nation against it.
The late downfall of PD
PD leader Godfrey Farrugia has proposed the ‘medical acceleration’ of unwanted pregnancies
And there was still time for one final twist before the end of the campaign, after the small party Alleanza Bidla challenged the other parties to sign a pledge to commit themselves to entrenching Malta’s abortion ban into the Constitution by the end of the year. While PL and AD didn’t sign the pledge, PN, Partit Demokratiku and Moviment Patrijotti Maltin did.
However, the PD’s decision to sign the pledge by no means enjoyed unanimity within the party. MEP candidate Cami Appelgren and former leader Marlene Farrugia both distanced themselves from the pledge, with Appelgren publicly coming out as pro-choice on the grounds that banning abortion outright won’t prevent women from seeking it overseas.
The clean-up activist deactivated her Facebook page with days to go till the election, allegedly after receiving death threats from pro-life activists.
Meanwhile, PD leader Godfrey Farrugia proposed the “medical acceleration” of births for women with unwanted pregnancies, with the state taking control of the babies and putting them up for adoption as an alternative to abortion.
However, Farrugia’s proposal was widely panned, with Voice for Choice lambasting it as “an abomination that would cause untold harm” and the PD taking a lot of flak from liberal voters.
By fault or design, Malta’s abortion debate has well and truly started and the only question now is whether it will keep picking up steam once the election is said and done.
Cover photo: The PN’s ‘Right to Life’ campaign: Photos in circles: Arnold Cassola and Cami Appelgren