Ethical pluralism: the next steps

Malta’s divorce referendum in 2011 has reinforced ethical pluralism in the Maltese islands.

The intensive debate on civil rights, IVF and abortion are a direct result of the divorce referendum. All this would not have been possible without the positive 2011 divorce referendum result. Prejudices and inhibitions are being slowly overcome.

The debate on civil rights is substantially settled, even though there is always room for improvement. The IVF debate is works in progress: with the PN having buckled under pressure as a result of Bernard Grech’s U-turn in Parliament on Wednesday, even this debate seems to be on track towards a possible satisfactory conclusion. In particular Bernard Grech rightly discarded the reaction of his health spokesperson Stephen Spiteri.

The next steps relate to the abortion debate.

ADPD – The Green Party is only one of two political parties in Malta to support the decriminalisation of abortion and the introduction of abortion in limited circumstances, that is to say when the pregnant woman’s life is in manifest danger, in respect of a pregnancy which is the result of violence (rape and incest) and in respect of a non-viable pregnancy.

Early this week the Women’s Rights Foundation (WRF) has gone a step further. Through a judicial protest it has taken the State Advocate as well as the Health and the Equality Ministers to task on abortion legislation arguing that current abortion legislation discriminated against all persons who can get pregnant and obstructed them from making choices in their private lives. The judicial protest submitted on behalf of more than 188 potential mothers is the first shot in what promises to be a long drawn up legal battle, right up to Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights, should this be necessary.

The abortion debate has been and will remain highly emotional. To date Malta’s predominantly conservative institutions have been intolerant and have done their utmost to obstruct this debate from developing. This situation cannot and will not last much longer as it is inconceivable in this day and age to further obstruct the co-existence of contrasting values: ethical pluralism is here to stay.

The decriminalisation of abortion and its possible legalisation, irrespective whether limited or otherwise, signifies one basic and important decision. It means that that the state no longer takes the decision on your behalf but rather that you will be able to take your own decision, subject to a regulatory framework which sets reasonable limits.  

It is estimated that around 400 Maltese women every year opt for an abortion. Some go abroad, others take pills, without medical supervision, which pills they receive through the post. Others resort to backstreet abortions. Prohibiting and criminalising abortion only drives it underground, away from the medical services, as a result exposing women to death or serious medical repercussions.

Therapeutic abortion is already permissible in the Maltese islands although this is not that clear in Maltese legislation. The way forward in the debate is to realise that abortion legislation in Malta, first enacted over 160 years ago, is not fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul. It requires to be brought in line with medical and scientific progress over the years.

Decriminalisation and legalisation of abortion in limited circumstances should be the way forward. No woman who opts for an abortion for whatever reason should be subject to criminal law. Any woman in such circumstances needs help, empathy and not state prosecution. This is the way forward.

published in Malta Independent on Sunday : 19 June 2022