The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

What is abortion really about?

Pierre Mallia Sunday, 26 September 2021, 08:55 Last update: about 19 days ago

San Marino is on the road to legalise abortion. Euronews brought two interesting interviews. A woman says that women in San Marino go outside the country for abortions and it is simply not true that abortions do not occur. Another captions a male who questions why the husband has no say in whether his wife (presumably he was referring to a married couple) decides to have an abortion or not. He also mentions adoption if she does not want to raise the child – something which for many adds insult to injury. In San Marino abortion has been over-ridden by governments which Euronews calls “mostly conservative”.

I have been following arguments on abortion throughout my carrier in Bioethics for over 30 years now. It seems that the argument remains a simplified one and we are not understanding the context. While I have always been a supporter of finding middle ground and on abortion I have always expressed myself in favour of women having a choice in medically-threatening conditions, and, where the woman’s body has been violated. But seeing women on television shouting for abortion always gives me an uncomfortable feeling that there is something deeper in the context which is not about abortion itself but about the undercurrent struggle of women within a post-male-dominated society. Is it only about terminating a pregnancy or is it a struggle for control and power? I believe that if this underlying context is not tackled, we will be stuck in these arguments under the guise of rights and liberty.

We see on the news how the Taliban are treating women. They have gone back a few steps even by Muslim world standards. Many Western women do not accept that women are made to cover their heads and sometimes faces. But many Muslim women also defend the cultural identity of this and speak about it in favour of women’s rights, namely that women should not be taken for their appearance but for their intellect and abilities. BBC had made an interesting programme on this some time ago. Now Foucault has challenged ‘The Order of Things’. Indeed, order had become in his time about power and control over people. He spoke a lot about how prisons try to manipulate minds and bodies. He also spoke a lot about sexuality and was all for freedom and against the control society had put on sex. But today he is also being challenged by liberal people. We do need some kind of order; order has to evolve to find a balance between stability and liberty.

The fact is that men have dominated women for a long time and religions, being mostly dominated by men, have kept women on the side-line. The honest truth is that many men fear women. Their very beauty has led men to be manipulated and women have also been unfortunately associated with evil for this. Even older women are weary of the younger ones and most female genital mutilation, according to scholarly articles in the Hastings Centre Report, written also by a feminist, for example, is not propagated by men but by women themselves, notwithstanding the easy accusations, and is thus dubbed “cultural”. Men are asked to control their behaviour while women are encouraged to dress as they like – as if fashion was not about others seeing you nice. As a father I agree that women should have the freedom to wear what they like. But I am also aware that my daughters are more vulnerable to crazy people (perhaps more men, but also women!) than boys. Why is it that to assert rights women have had to resort to learning kick-boxing?

But back to abortion. We speak about reproductive rights. The right over one’s body is not really and truly a reproductive right; just as we are prohibited to sell a kidney even though it is ours. The consequences of selling a kidney would mean a market value will come about which in turn would mean that the more vulnerable among us will be “forced” to consider it. Once a woman is pregnant, the only way reproductive rights can be violated is by actually having someone kill that baby inside her against her will. Reproduction has occurred. But if she wishes to kill it, then it is a reproductive right? Surely there has to be a justified reason which society can accept and not only the reason given by the individual.

When I see protests on television, I get this gut feeling that it is something more than about killing a foetus. I have shared this thought with many feminists I know and they agree that these demonstrations, without context, do not really honour feminism. After all, which woman would want to kill her own baby unless it was a baby brought about by rape or because her life is in danger? I can think of two reasons. The first is more obvious. Usually the reasons women seek abortion are poverty, old age and indeed very young age. Lack of education and resources ought to be resolved by other means, but the reality is they are not.

The second is less obvious, perhaps. It is about this “struggle” between men and women. Men have dominated women for too long, period. Men conversely also know that women dominate them in many ways, but in other ways. Men are aware of their vulnerability when confronted by women. Why is it that many commercials addressed to men use women as a tool? Why is it that you do not hear a cry for women not to be exploited in this way as much as we hear about abortion? Is it perhaps that they have a right to use their body for business and money? That is, they have a right to exploit the vulnerabilities of men or to be used for that end?

If there is a third reason, it is religion. But this again boils down to a struggle of the sexes and religions, being mostly dominated by men, have in the past put women in their kitchens.

Why kill a child, which is yours, but not only yours? As explained, valid reasons would be reproductive rights (rape), and health rights, such as a threat to one’s life. But these are about different rights, not rights over one’s body. This is your baby. Abortion, if it happens, has to be a difficult decision. Without proper guidance to make the right decision it is a disservice to the woman as she has to suffer the consequences. Women actually lose a right to make an informed choice with which they can live. Questions professionals are meant to ask are: why do you wish for abortion? Have you discussed it with anyone? Do you think you can live with it? Have you told anyone beside me (as a professional)?  Even in cases of rape and life-threatening conditions, she has a right to counselling and be guided and not to be directed or persuaded one way over another. Having an abortion because you already have three children is about the abrogation of responsibility of the father and low socio-economic reasons. But now women are choosing to have kids from different fathers. So is abortion justified if she does not want the latest pregnancy?

We consider marriages as the “bricks” of society, if not the cornerstone. We cannot expect the Church, on its own, to educate young people about marriage; society needs to do it. Instead we use damage control and teach about contraception and rights. To speak about the right over one’s body outside the context of our collective responsibility towards each other and our future has no meaning, other than saying that by trying to defend unborn children we are not respecting women’s freedom. We need to adapt the principle of doing a foreseen (and otherwise) harm when a good is directly intended. Otherwise, it is like listening to your 18-year-old telling you that they have a right to go in and out as they please and you have no right to create certain rules within your own house. It is by engaging with our children as they are growing that we reach solutions.


Pierre Mallia is Professor of Family Medicine and Patients’ Rights and teaches at the University of Malta. He chairs the Bioethics Research Programme of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery. He also chairs the Bioethics Consultative Committee.

This article is his personal opinion and does not represent the opinion of any committee or Board he serves on.


Email: [email protected]

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