Independent MP Marlene Farrugia insists she remains pro-life and still believes that life starts from inception but argues that the decriminalisation of abortion would be a first step in reaching true equality.
She also said on this week’s edition of Indepth that there would not be an increase in abortions if the state starts offering the required care and support to women, as this would result in fewer unwanted pregnancies.
On Wednesday, Farrugia shocked the nation when she presented a Private Member’s Bill that aims to amend the Criminal Code in terms of abortion no longer being deemed a crime. This would apply both for women who seek abortion and for those providing it.
The move has reignited a national debate on abortion, with the Bill being described as “historic” by pro-choice groups and “shocking” by pro-life NGOs. The Nationalist Party has already said it cannot back the decriminalisation of abortion while the Labour Party has yet to pronounce itself on the issue.
Farrugia insists that she is only proposing the decriminalisation of abortion for now but hopes that the Bill will spark a wider debate, one which the country has been “avoiding” for years.
“We keep avoiding this discussion because the topic of abortion is an emotional and distressing one. Many times, it is also used as a political football, at the cost of the lives of both women and babies.”
“The fact that it is such an emotional subject makes it very hard to speak in favour of decriminalisation, of giving women their rights, without also giving the impression that you are promoting the introduction of abortion, which is definitely not the case here.”
“Abortion remains something no one wants – it is unwanted by the pro-choice and pro-life lobbies and everyone in-between. Abortion is a tragedy both for the mother and the baby. I am sure everyone agrees on this. But we cannot put in place the educational, social and health structures without directly addressing the problem.”
Asked if being pro-life and in favour of decriminalisation are contradictory, Farrugia noted that no Maltese woman has ever been jailed for having an abortion. “If we agree that women should not go to prison over an abortion, why are people against repealing this law? Why keep women under the heel of a criminal code that discriminates on the basis of sex?”.
“I am pro-life, and I do not see a conflict with what I am proposing. There should be no contradiction in a society where women have full access to prevention, where they are respected and are not forced to carry out unwanted pregnancies and where they would have enjoyed a comprehensive education not only on their reproductive rights but also on their responsibilities.”
Farrugia says women should live in a society without the stigma that is currently attached to reproductive rights, including contraception which, she says, should be made affordable to all.
She believes that fewer women will seek abortion if they live in a state where they have access to counselling, reassurance and help, where they are not punished and end up living in poverty if they choose to keep the child.
“If we truly want to save lives, we need to have a state that provides help for mothers, just like it provides assistance for the care of elderly persons.”
“Childcare is not enough. We saw what happened during the pandemic, which shone a bright spotlight on the situation of women around the world. Women ended up without a job and without help from the state. Perinatal health is not something that should be taken for granted. It requires strong mental health.”
“Currently, there is none of this. Unfortunately, abortion still happens. Those who afford it go abroad. Those who do not often seek ways of doing it themselves, which can have devastating consequences on the woman’s health. If a woman has all the help she needs before she gets pregnant, the chances are that fewer women will seek abortion.”
Regulated by law
Farrugia said that, if a ‘medical intervention’ is needed, this should be regulated by law, like any other procedure.
“If an abortion is absolutely necessary and all other options have been exhausted … if the mother has no other option, which is the most tragic stage a woman can find herself in, then that medical procedure should be regulated.”
She insisted, however, that even if the state were to start providing abortions, fewer interventions would be needed than now if the required social support systems and education are in place.
Nonetheless, the MP believes abortion should only take place with exceptions.
Asked what these exceptions are, Farrugia said her Bill does not go as far as to make a distinction between different scenarios. “So far, my aim is to lead to an open discussion on the subject.”
“Personally, I have always been against abortion. But I feel that this subject should be discussed to remove the chaos that exists when we speak about women’s rights … the stigma … the shame associated with words such as ‘vagina’ and ‘period.’ It’s as if you’re swearing in public. What I have presented so far is a repeal for women not to be decriminalised. I am not proposing the introduction of abortion. But I believe that by threatening and condemning women we are not solving the problem. We are not even beginning to address it. We need an open and serious discussion to see what should be done from thereon.”
Debate ‘already taking place’
Asked if she believes that such a discussion will actually take place, given the stances adopted by the two major political parties, Farrugia said that it already is.
The “tsunami” that ensued after she presented the Bill showed how important it is that such a debate takes place, she said.
Referring to the statement by Opposition Leader Bernard Grech, Farrugia said the PN does not even want a discussion. “The PN wants women criminalised for exercising their rights on their lives and health, and for refusing to be discriminated against on the basis of sex. The Opposition has already thrown women and their rights out of the window.”
Asked if the debate would come to an abrupt halt should the Bill be defeated in Parliament, the MP said that, “what happened over the past two days showed that the country is ready to discuss and to face the onslaught that is to be expected.”
Some people will incite hatred, but people are ready to discuss, even in Parliament, she continued.
‘Everyone should be against abortion’
Public surveys have shown that the majority of Maltese are against abortion. Asked if this is a matter that should be decided through a referendum, Farrugia said: “I believe that everyone should be against abortion, even those who do it because they have no other choice, because it is a tragedy. Let’s hope that we will remain like this.”
“But the energy has to be challenged to change the situation so that women have a better chance of avoiding unwanted pregnancies and, if that happens, they have proper help and are able to make a choice with an open mind. Not all women understand the implications of abortion, and it is good that there is someone who explains to them and guides them. The state should invest much more in motherhood.”
‘I did not deceive the electorate’
Many have criticised Farrugia over the fact that, when she was elected on the PD ticket in 2017, she was not speaking about abortion. She is now being accused of having taken voters for a ride.
“That is part of the spin. What I presented is an amendment to a part of the criminal code that criminalizes and condemns women on the basis of gender. I can assure you that both parties had a lot about equality in their electoral manifestos. This is not rocket science. I am not reinventing the wheel. All I’m asking for is to have true equality between men and women and remove a law that discriminates against women.”
“No, I did not take people for a ride. People always know where I stand. What I am doing here is the first step towards removing the stigma, the taboo and ensuring that we can hold a debate on a level playing field.”
Farrugia said she decided to present the Bill now because of the experience of several people, particularly during the pandemic, “which shone a very bright light on the vulnerability of women.”
“This is also about the evolution of thought over time. It does not mean that I appreciate the life of the child in the womb any less. It does not mean that I no longer believe that life starts at conception. But I believe that we are not helping the cause if we do not decriminalise women and put in place all that they need.”
“This is about raising a discussion on women’s rights, something which I have been doing all my life. This is not something that is easy for an independent MP in a Parliament that wastes more time discussing scandals and how to fix them rather than how to improve people’s lives.”
‘I have already left a political legacy’
Some have said that Farrugia is only trying to get even with her former husband Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, who had filed a Private Member’s Bill that led to the eventual introduction of divorce. But the MP dismissed this is hogwash.
“The fact that to define me, they have to mention my ex-husband, or even my current partner, shows how poorly society looks at women. They cannot see Marlene as an individual person, but they have to associate me with a man.”
“I have already left a legacy. No one has ever managed to be elected with two parties. I helped form a new political party which made it to Parliament, and then I became an independent MP to let that party grow without me influencing it. My political legacy, despite attempts by some to discard it, is something I am very proud of.”
Farrugia continued that she had never “been bought or accepted to be part of the corruption” experienced under the last administration. And she has always kept the environment at the top of her agenda.
“If my former colleagues had listened to me then, we would not be in the situation we are in today. I had warned them about people who have now been kicked out of the PL, or who have ended up in prison. People who betrayed the party and the people.”
“I felt the need to do this now because, while one hoped that women’s issues would be placed at the top of the agenda by the PL administration, this government wants to increase female participation in Parliament through an undemocratic system that has actually lessened the stature of women in politics.”
Farrugia said the upcoming discussion on abortion should be used as a “springboard” for a debate on how to improve the quality of life of women, men and children, “on how to create more life and reduce loss of life.”
The aim of the Bill and the ensuing discussion is to have a country where people feel safe and comfortable to procreate, she said. “Let’s start from somewhere. We woke people up, now we need to keep up the momentum to bring the necessary change for less loss of life, more rights for women and to eradicate, stigma, taboo, prejudice and tribalism.”