NEWS | Sunday, 18 November 2007

Six signatures away from Constitutional amendment?

Raphael Vassallo

Chris Agius of the Malta Labour Party became the 38th Maltese MP to sign a controversial petition calling for an amendment of the Constitution to grant full human rights to the unborn child from the moment of conception.
A total of 44 votes from MPs – two-thirds of the House of Representatives – is required to approve the amendment, should the motion ever be presented in Parliament.
The idea of a Constitutional amendment on abortion has made waves on the island ever since May 2005, when Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi announced his intention to entrench the relevant section of the Criminal Code during one of his now defunct monthly press briefings.
Foremost among the campaign’s promoters was Justice Minister Tonio Borg, who promptly issued circulars to “all of Malta’s civil society”, requesting approval of the government’s proposal – in writing – by the end of the month. He got the support of a number of organisations, including the Chamber of Advocates, the PN Youth Council, and a number of voluntary associations and sports clubs such as the national Ju Jitsu federation, among others.
The Gift of Life Foundation (GLF), the voluntary and highly vocal NGO which initially backed Gonzi’s proposal, later withdrew its support when it became clear the original proposal did not enjoy the overwhelming support the government had evidently expected.
Instead, it launched its own petition to amend the Constitution to grant full human rights to the embryo from the precise moment of fertilization: a view enjoying the blessing of the Catholic Church and the approval of many individual scientists, but which remains controversial in that it presents the origins of the human person as an ideological, rather than a scientific principle.
Science is in fact divided on the issue, with many authorities arguing that the point of origin of the individual human person cannot predate the incidence of the primitive streak: the earliest beginnings of the human nervous system, which normally appears 14 days after penetration. This is in fact the view of the Warnock Report (1984), which underpins abortion legislation in the United Kingdom.
Despite the lack of consensus, this second petition has been aggressively promoted by various means: mostly publicity stunts such as the distribution of plastic foetuses to MPs on their way into parliament, or the draping of a black veil on the pro-life monument in Naxxar. But the campaign has also evidently latched onto fact that Malta is entering election mode. In fact, Opposition leader Alfred Sant is now the target of a relentless pressure campaign, suggesting the amendment issue may well have a part to play in the elections.
By way of contrast, the arguments against have been spearheaded mainly by individual contributors to the press (the undersigned included), and tend to focus on the inherent dangers of exploiting legislative tools such as the Constitution for purely political ends. Foremost among the objections is that the precedent may be used to extend similar Constitutional bans to a wide variety of controversial issues like divorce, cohabitation, gay marriages, etc. By the same argument, both government’s original proposal and Gift of Life’s counter-proposal are classic cases of democracy being reduced to a mere dictatorship of the majority, whereby any well-organised and financed lobby group can dominate the country’s legislation at the expense of differing minorities.
Elsewhere, individual members of the medical profession have also expressed concern about the possible unintended side-effects of this amendment on sensitive issues such as contraception and assisted fertilization.
On another level altogether, the campaign has been criticised for misogyny, on the grounds that the amendment represents a thinly veiled attempt by a conservative male mindset to control women’s lives and limit their freedom to make individual choices.
Ironically, it has also irritated a few genuinely pro-life individuals, who argue the amendment will not actually address the real problems surrounding this complex issue.
Gift of Life has released a full list of the 38 MPs who signed the petition. Of the Cabinet, only ministers Tonio Borg, Jesmond Mugliet, Tonio Fenech, Tony Abela and Francis Zammit Dimech have so far signed.
Lawrence Gonzi, who first proposed the idea, hasn’t signed. Neither have Dolores Cristina, Louis Deguara, Michael Frendo, Austin Gatt, George Pullicino, Ninu Zammit, and Censu Galea.
Only two out of the six female MPs, Marie Louise Coleiro and Justyne Caruana (MLP), have signed. Only two MPs have so far publicly voiced scepticism about the Constitutional amendment: Joe Brincat and Adrian Vassallo (MLP).
Alfred Sant and deputy MLP leader Charles Mangion have not signed the petition. In June 2005, Sant declined to respond to Tonio Borg’s summons, arguing that the “country expects seriousness even on issues like this.”
Alternattiva Demokratika has not so far taken a stand on the issue, although chairperson Harry Vassallo claimed to have signed the petition last year. This claim was later withdrawn.

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