The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

FEMM Commission Chair expects Dalli to uphold European principles – does that include abortion?

Jeremy Micallef Monday, 7 October 2019, 09:57 Last update: about 6 months ago

Helena Dalli’s hearing for her position as European Commissioner for Equality was received positively by the FEMM Committee and its Chair, and such a stamp of approval was perhaps instrumental in her confirmation. Jeremy Micallef speaks with the aforementioned Chairperson, MEP Evelyn Regner, on Dalli’s hearing, its many tangents, and Intersectional Feminism.

Ex-Minister for Equality Helena Dalli won the two-thirds majority she required from MEPs to be approved as European Commissioner for Equality last week, making her the first to hold the wide-ranging portfolio.

The FEMM Committee, which focuses on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, took centre stage during her 3-hour long grilling at the EU Parliament, which was moderated by the aforementioned committee’s chairperson.

Following what was (probably) one of the least confrontational grillings of all the commissioners, Evelyn Regner, an Austrian member of the Socialists & Democrats, said that “it was a great success for the FEMM Committee” and that Dalli showed a profound knowledge of her portfolio.

Perhaps the areas where Dalli seemed most reluctant to precisely state her positions were on issues that would have put her at odds with her country of origin – with questions on sexual and reproductive health rights (which conservatives have considered to be codeword for abortion), and the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia being the two that stood out the most.

Dalli did not specifically state that she would further abortion itself, although she did give a guarantee on furthering sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) “without exception”, that she believed that rights were being backpedalled in some Member States, and that she would do all possible to protect SRHR.

Speaking with this newspaper, Committee Chair Regner said that Dalli was the one being nominated because she’s experienced with the European institutions and with the equality issue – and that they were looking for a commissioner who was tough, fit, strong and committed because most issues related to the Equality Commissioner are not only found in her portfolio.

This included insisting on the discussions of issues such as gender budgeting and energy poverty with the commissioners of the respective portfolios, she explained.

Whilst delivering close to 100% of the policies the International Lesbian, Gay Association (ILGA) expects of countries worldwide, one issue where Dalli received some flak was abortion.

Malta has one of the most restrictive legislative frameworks when it comes to pregnancy termination, to the point that the introduction of the MAP pill is still, conscientiously, resisted today – and MAP doesn’t even terminate pregnancies but is actually a contraceptive.

The island nation is one of the only countries in the entire world to criminalise abortion, meaning that it is entirely prohibited. However, abortions are de facto allowed to save the mother’s life.

FEMM Committee Chair MEP Evelyn Regner said that she is “strictly convinced” that it is up to every woman to make decisions about their own body – something she explains she has a “very strong” position on.


The Principle of Subsidiarity

With Dalli having to essentially get in line with the seemingly pro-choice position of the European Union, regardless of whether she was actually pro-choice in the first place, the question put forward was whether the principle of subsidiarity of the EU would remain in this regard.

As Regner explained, subsidiarity does not mean that “it is just a topic to be dealt with at a national level, but it means that if nothing is going on then, of course, the European Union can do something” – when we are talking about fundamental rights.

She brought the example of her Polish colleagues and others on topics where “nobody wants to do anything”, and that they always say certain things should be decided on at a national level.

“What do they do at a national level? Nothing,” she criticized, insisting that we have to look deeper.

When asked whether there should be more pressure from the EU, Regner replied in the affirmative, although she noted that there were many issues that needed to be dealt with at a national level because “these are huge and sensitive debates”, without going into detail of what said debates were.

“The principles, the framework - this is something where we have European values, and this is something that Helena Dalli answered.

“We expect something from her.”

After the Irish abortion referendum overturned the ban on the procedure, a referendum which surprise actor Facebook took criticism for after a whistleblower revealed that it was censoring pro-life ads, Malta is now the last remaining country in the EU where abortion is illegal, and although there is strong opposition to its legalization, the first-time marking of International Safe Abortion Day in Malta via a rally by local NGOs shows that the issue is not going away.

Biological men participating in women’s Sports (and vice-versa)

A frequently overlooked issue which has cropped up worldwide with the implementation of certain LGBT laws regarding transgender individuals is the undeniable biological reality of the differences in the Male and Female anatomy and the impact they have on physical performance.

Due to the differences between the two genders in hormone levels such as estrogen and testosterone, genetic differences in innate characteristics such as height, weight, muscle mass and body fat, and other anatomical differences in things such as bone density, the athletic abilities of men and women differ and give both advantages and disadvantages depending on the activity at hand.

This is not to be confused with cases of androgynous/intersex individuals such as that of sprinter Caster Semenya, who was born with both masculine and feminine characteristics and who from a biological perspective is considered to be the exception and not the rule.

In her hearing, Dalli was posed a question on whether processes to legally change one’s gender such as the one implemented in Malta, whereby one would simply need a signed form from a notary, would allow people to cheat in sports by giving them an unfair biological advantage.

With an audible groan echoing in the chamber as the question was being asked, albeit seemingly being a perfectly valid question, Dalli got around answering the question directly by saying that “gender reassignment is certainly not a walk in the park” – which received quite the applause for a non-answer.

Regner did, however, say that whilst from her point of view Dalli did indeed answer the question in a really good way, there had to be a conversation on the reality of the science.

“What is needed is that it becomes a public topic. That it’s not something put in a corner where we say that ‘these are the exotic issues and nobody is really concerned.’”

Focusing on Dalli’s reply to the question, Regner insisted that she answered appropriately, because “politics is not only about agreeing with one piece of legislation or another - you just can't do everything at the same time, but, it is important to know what her attitude is, what she is capable of doing, and empathy”.

“When she got the question one thing was clear, this was not something for a scandalous, populist newspaper - but she knows how people feel - how sad they are, how terrible this is for parents and everybody around, and I think this was an important answer to deal with this problem.”

“If the whole thing is about whether world records are broken by this person or the other - honestly, what's that? We're talking about human beings.”

Intersectional feminism faces global backlash

Betty Friedan, who was one of the leaders of the classical feminist movement once said that “a girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she adjust to prejudice and discrimination”.

As Europe-wide and British polls that are done by YouGov have shown, the overwhelming majority of people would agree with the statement that “men and women should have equal rights and status in society, and be treated equally in every way”.

So then, why do polls by the same YouGov show a firm rejection to the label of “feminist”, and, on top of that, a rising number of people rejecting that same label?

To use a medical aphorism, “when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras” – the addition of the prefix “intersectional” has turned the agenda of feminism on its head.

Regner agreed with Friedan’s statement, and she also brought forward an interesting example where she found she must deviate from the principle set by the feminist icon.

She reasoned that “not accepting privileges” also meant “not accepting all the disadvantages”, and she pointed towards the unequal legal treatment of men and women when it came to the age of retirement in her homeland of Austria.

Austria’s retirement age currently stands at 65 for men, and 60 for women – admittedly not something you see every day in 2019, but not as uncommon as you’d think.

She explained that, whilst this should not be so, it would be politically irresponsible to simply insert a cut-off date where they would become instantly equal, as this would cause issues for those affected by, for example, the gender pay gap.

Basically, those women (not all, as some women earn more than men) that have earned less than the average male would get all the disadvantages without any privileges.

Regner then maintained that she is a feminist, and that “everybody is equal and should have equal rights”.

“Feminism is not out – feminism is more important than ever and we should not get lost in these differences [between intersectional feminists and feminists].”

“The major story is that we are living in a time of backlash, and that is the problem.”


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