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Abortion debate goes beyond sinners and saints

Abortion is about protecting every woman’s right to decide what to do with their body and what to believe in

Messages are left at a memorial to Savita Halappanavar whose death in 2012 reignited debate on abortion in Ireland

One thing this country will never get is a proper debate on abortion. Going by the current debate on the IVF law and last year’s debate on the morning after pill, science and facts will be drowned by a cacophony of condescending emotional outbursts and irrational self-righteousness on all sides.

As many political analysts said, the implications of the Irish referendum vote on abortion will reverberate around the world. The resounding victory for the repeal of Ireland’s anti-abortion law came after a campaign which saw thousands of young Irish people fly back home from all over the world to participate and vote in a referendum which ultimately was about women’s autonomy over their own bodies.

Irish legislators are now expected to pass a law which will allow terminations within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and up to 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances. The Irish ban on abortions was considered to be among the strictest in the western world but the law in Malta is even stricter. Abortion in Malta is illegal and constitutes a criminal offence in all circumstances.

The bottom line is that in Malta women are denied safe and legal abortions even if they have been raped, are a child themselves or are carrying a baby with such severe abnormalities it cannot survive. Incredibly, Malta is the only country in Europe which bans abortion in cases when the woman’s life or health is endangered by the continuation of pregnancy. A UN Population Fund report estimated the 2008 maternal mortality ratio in Malta to be eight deaths per 100,000 live births.

Such issues merit a debate but the country lacks the maturity to do so. Unfortunately the majority of people still believe that they should do as they are told to by their political masters who took over the mantle from foreign occupiers. The vacuum this creates in public debate is usually filled in by a crusading vociferous minority who steer the debate away from rationality and public policy.

Any debate on abortion should not be solely based on what has happened abroad. But it cannot be ignored either. While Ireland has moved in one direction, other countries such as Poland are moving towards the other. Other countries have long introduced abortion. Italy introduced abortion in 1978 and statistics show that since then the number of women undergoing medical abortions has steadily declined. In 1980 the number of abortions almost reached 250,000 but by 2016 the number dipped below the 100,000 mark.

Blanket bans on abortion export rather than stop abortions. Although women face the prospect of an 18-month jail sentence, every year some 400 Maltese women travel to have abortions, mostly to Italy and England. Annual medical reports in the UK show that some 60 Maltese women a year have an abortion performed in that country while in 2016 some 390 European women travelled to Italy to have an abortion.

Who does not afford or is not allowed to travel and have an abortion abroad is left with two options, either try to have an abortion in the unsafest of ways or have an unwanted child even if it is the result of incest or rape.

Despite the best efforts of former prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami to undemocratically tie the hands of future governments by entrenching the abortion ban in the Constitution, the debate cannot be postponed perpetually.

One day it will be inevitable here too, hopefully before any women becomes a martyr like the Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar who died in 2012 in Ireland due to the complications of a septic miscarriage. Whatever our personal position on abortion is, we cannot simply ignore the fact that women in Malta cannot do an abortion even if their very life is in danger.

Unfortunately I can already see the pro-lifers loudly spew dogmatic soundbites based on lies and the militant pro-choice camp dismiss all pro-lifers as some kind of ignorant dinosaur on Xarabank once the country starts debating abortion.

As Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson Carmel Cacopardo rightly said it should be an informed debate, not one “intended to pit the saints against the sinners.”

Ultimately beyond what I hope will be a healthy and mature debate, we must keep in mind that abortion is about protecting every woman’s right to decide what to do with their body and what to believe in.

Once moral authorities stop telling us what to do and what to believe in, we can freely debate and decide according to our conscience.

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