A few months ago, Ireland overturned its near-absolute ban on abortion striking a powerful blow for the principle that women’s bodies should not be policed by either Church or State.

I am delighted that a pro-choice coalition made up of prominent human rights civil society organisations, including several women, has been established to campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion in Malta. The coalition is pressing for laws to be passed that protect the health of pregnant women in line with international civil rights standards throughout the rest of the western world.

The Voice for Choice Coalition stands for the right, in all conscience, for women to make their own choices. The resistance to this is led principally by a group of vocal elderly Maltese men, of whom the most eloquent and intelligent bases his arguments on “traditional Christian views”, the Roman Catholic Church’s “authoritative teachings” and the fight against the so-called promotion “of the Culture of Death”.

Let me declare at the outset that I accept unreservedly that for doctrinal reasons Roman Catholics cannot accept abortion under any circumstances. That is a religious, faith-based view which must be respected.

The problem is that many in Malta want to impose this doctrine on all women by telling them what they can and cannot do with their bodies. But this is not of itself sufficient argument for society to prevent women, who may not hold the same views, from acknowledging that there may be circumstances when a different choice may be made.

As an elderly man with a deep respect for women’s rights, may I suggest there are two key issues that should inform any debate on this vexed issue?

The first is the intrinsic right, which the Church recognises, for women to make a choice based on freedom of conscience. The relevant aspect of Roman Catholic teaching is the Vatican Council’s declaration of religious liberty 55 years ago, which asserts that a person must not be prevented from acting according to conscience and must not be coerced to act in a manner contrary to his or her own belief.

As one leading theologian put it: “Sin is a matter related to one’s own personal conscience. While the Church is surely in duty-bound to form consciences by proposing objective guidelines, she cannot coerce the individual conscience of its members, even when these take decisions that differ from the official Catholic teaching.”

The Church and State have different sets of concerns in relation to such issues as divorce, same-sex marriage or abortion

“When one makes a decision in conscience, seeking the truth, and the decision is different from what the Church teaches, one could say the individual is not in agreement with the Church’s teachings. But when we talk about sin, we’re talking about something between the individual and God, and that is something where we can’t play God ourselves”.

The determining factor has to be the requirements of social justice informed by conscience, which applies to all, and not the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine on abortion, which may be preached to all but forced on none whose conscience it offends.

The argument is irrefutable. Those women who do not wish to have an abortion on religious grounds are not obliged to resort to it. But those who, equally firmly, believe in the mother’s supreme right in all conscience – their  sense, after informed and careful deliberation, of what is right or wrong in the circumstances – to choose whether or not to have a child are entitled to make their own choice to have an abortion within clearly laid down legal and medical parameters.

Science, reason, conscience and choice should prevail.

The second crucial issue is that this debate is not simply a doctrinal or moral one. As this government has demonstrated spectacularly in the past six years, it is also about the State’s intrinsic responsibility in an advanced parliamentary democracy to safeguard all minorities in society. This should also include the scores of Maltese women who resort to abortion abroad annually.

A State which legislates only in the interests of a doctrinal majority on women’s reproductive rights is setting itself against the principles of social justice. Social justice requires recognition by the State of the freedoms and rights of all individuals and the right, which every woman has, to medical and psychological well-being under the law without any form of discrimination.

The Church and State have different sets of concerns in relation to such issues as divorce, same-sex marriage or abortion. But all major religions, including the Roman Catholic Church, accept that in a democracy decisions about what social actions should be deemed lawful are not necessarily the same as what is demanded on a purely religious basis.

Our legislators have been elected with a duty to cater for the needs of society as a whole, while at the same time recognising that minorities also have the right to the State’s support. Lawmakers cannot properly represent the heterogeneous society that Malta has become while being religiously sectarian.

People are absolutely entitled to hold their religious view of abortion. But that is a matter of private conviction, as opposed to a basis for the enactment in Parliament of a secular law which applies to everyone. Roman Catholic believers have every right to abstain from practices their faith tells them are wrong. But they have no right of veto over others by imposing their morality on all women regardless of what women’s own consciences tell them.

At its heart, the debate is about women’s civil rights in Malta. Parliamentarians have been talking glibly – virtue-signalling in the run-up to elections – about women’s equality and civil rights. But how can there be equality of the sexes in Malta when women are prevented from exercising conscientious choice over their own reproduction? 

The Women’s Rights Foundation and the Voice for Choice Coalition – who have come in for much misogynistic and other abuse since they were launched – represent long overdue civil rights objectives. Their call for Maltese women to be free from unequal treatment and discrimination and to find a practical solution which recognises their fundamental right to make their own choices is just.

For the State in a liberal democracy this should not be a doctrinal struggle. Belief in freedom of conscience and freedom of expression go to the heart of western democratic values. In the objective medical and social circumstances surrounding her pregnancy, and acting within legally defined parameters, a woman should have the paramount right in all consciousness to exercise freedom of choice.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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