The approval of Bill 28 is not the end of the abortion debate. It is just the beginning. Maybe, the end of the beginning! The original proposals of Bill 28 were promising, even if they were no big deal. As originally proposed, Bill 28 was a reasonable starting point to an abortion debate which has been stifled for years on end.
It is neither normal nor acceptable for the Head of State to take part in such a controversial political debate in whatever form he opts to participate.
“Everyone knows my position,” President Vella said, when queried by the press last December. His active lobbying of holders of political office against the introduction of any form of abortion in the Maltese Islands was substantial. To add insult to injury he also went public on his intention to resign office and ignite a political crisis, if Parliament approved an abortion bill. In so doing he was giving full and open support to the conservative elements within the Labour Party and beyond, as a result bringing Robert Abela and Chris Fearne on their political knees and forcing them to change the content of Bill 28.
The Labour Party has buckled under the intense lobbying to which it was subjected. As a result, Labour ended up adopting the conservative political position of the Opposition. It has thus once more illustrated that, in such matters, when push comes to shove, Parliament is led by a unified PLPN. George Orwell’s Animal Farm description is apt: they looked from pig to man and from man to pig again, and could not tell which was which!
As PN MP Claudette Buttigieg emphasised in the Parliamentary Committee for the Consideration of Bills, last Monday, the PN Opposition was consistently conservative throughout the debate. Labour, on the other hand, unfortunately, ditched a draft which was a reasonable start for a serious debate and at the end adopted the conservative PN position.
Where do we go from here? The conservative forces, represented by PLPN have presented a united front in Parliament through the unanimous approval of the amended Bill 28. There are however rumblings that the fundamentalist right is considering the possibility of collecting signatures to call an abrogative referendum as the abortion amendments to the Criminal Code, in their view, go too far!
Notwithstanding what the fundamentalists do, the abrogative referendum procedure, is a unique opportunity, to take the conservative PLPN establishment to task. It is also an opportunity to contest the artificial consensus leading to the approval of Bill 28 as well as an appropriate instrument to denounce the interference in the democratic political process by George Vella, President of the Republic.
On Monday, in their different ways, in Parliament, Professor Isabel Stabile, Integra Foundation leader Maria Pisani and ADPD Chairperson Sandra Gauci, exposed clearly that in view of the fact that Bill 28 as amended is a huge step backwards, it is worse than the status quo, as Rosianne Cutajar quipped after the parliamentary vote. The changes made will not save lives. It will only protect medical practitioners, as ably explained by Professor Isabel Stabile.
The way forward is to scrap the approved amendments to the Criminal Code and to alternatively legislate in favour of decriminalisation of abortion. Any woman who opts for an abortion needs empathy and not persecution from the state. A limited legal access to abortion is essential, not only when the pregnancy is a potential threat to the life or health of the pregnant woman. It is also necessary to legislate in favour of abortion in cases of rape and incest as well as in those cases where a non-viable pregnancy arises. These issues have to date been avoided in the public debate. They must be addressed the soonest.
We need to clearly identify this as the moderate way forward. Far away from the emotional appeals of the fundamentalist lobby. Also, considerably distant from the extreme position of those who insist on total individual liberty without any limits.
The 2011 divorce referendum entrenched ethical pluralism in Malta’s political agenda. This was an irreversible step which affirmed that different ethical views not only exist: they need the protection of the state.
The PLPN approved abortion amendments entrench a 19th century-Malta in our statute books. They need to be ditched and replaced with decent legislation fit for the 21st century. This is the only reasonable way forward.
ADPD Deputy Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 2 July 2023