The thin end of the wedge? – Tonio Borg

The Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence Bill purports to incorporate the Istanbul Convention on Domestic Violence into our laws.

In fact, it does more than that. It amends the previous Domestic Violence Act of 2006, piloted by former minister Dolores Cristina, and removes from the definition of household member any previous reference to “the child conceived but yet unborn” of any person living with another in a marriage or extramarital relationship.

The Life Network and other non-governmental organisations have rightly objected to this deletion. Deleting any reference to the unborn child means that the beneficial effects of the new Bill cannot be applied to the unborn. This includes drafting and implementing an action plan, as required by the Bill, to be monitored by a new commission regarding domestic violence.

So, apart from the conceptual objections to the removal of a reference to the unborn child, there are also practical implications, since the deletion would diminish the protection even as regards prevention, which existed under the 2006 Act.

I am not saying that the deletion of any reference to the unborn child renders abortion legal in Malta.

Abortion remains a crime under the Criminal Code; what I am stating is that a protection as regards prevention which applied to the unborn child applies no more under the new Bill.

The government has repeatedly stated that it is against the wilful termination of a pregnancy, so why insist on the removal of any reference to the unborn child in the new Bill?

The Prime Minister and the piloting minister, Helena Dalli, were quoted as saying that the reference is superfluous, since the word ‘descendants’ found in the Bill includes the unborn child.

However, apart from the fact that any first-year law student would soon tell you that under our law, a reference to an unborn child, to be legally effective, has to be specific. The Attorney General told a parliamentary committee he does not know of any law in Malta which includes an unborn child under the definition of ‘descendant’, and he is right and correct at law. 

Consequently, in view of this clear statement, does it make sense to continue to insist that the deletion should stand?

This was no lapsus or mistake, for when the Opposition moved an amendment to reintroduce the reference to the unborn child, it was vehemently resisted, rejected and defeated by the government.

It is therefore natural that pro-life activists and ordinary citizens are questioning the purpose of such a deletion.

Was it the result of pressure from the “liberal and progressive” lobby ensconced in Dalli’s ministry, which also proposes an equality commission which will fine any organisation which does not abide by its dictates on what is morally acceptable?

As stated in the position paper issued by the Church in Malta, the proposal contains a clear risk of subjective interpretation, such as penalising a pamphlet or literature which promotes the Christian concept of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Besides, the proposal inverts the burden of proof so that anyone accused of imaginary discrimination will have to prove that he is innocent rather than the authorities having to prove his guilt.

A recent survey showed that over 85 per cent of Maltese are against any form of abortion. This will should be respected, even though the issue of life or death should not be gauged by popularity in surveys or otherwise.

The sanctity of life is enmeshed in the idea of human dignity irrespective of popular recognition.

But when a government insists that it is right on an issue where all legal pundits say that it is wrong, then indeed everyone has the right to come to their own conclusions as to whether there is some hidden agenda in the government’s mind.

Nor should the government, in trying to justify its errors, attack others, falsely accusing them of an ambivalent attitude on the right to life when the only ambivalence is that of the government on this issue.

When the Prime Minister, a fortnight ago, accused me of stating, during the hearing for my approval as a European Commissioner in November 2012, that there was one law in Malta and I apply another law within the EU, he knew that this was not true.

What I said during the hearing was that while I affirmed my belief that human life starts at conception, under EU law, the Commission had no right to interfere on the issue, which was governed exclusively by the separate laws of Member States.

Now is the time for a government which boasts of its pro-life credentials to eliminate any ambivalent or equivocal impression and reintroduce the protection of the unborn child in the Bill.

If it does not, everyone is entitled to draw their own conclusion about the commitment of the government to protect life from conception.

Indeed, this Bill, like so many other things done in recent years, could be truly the thin end of the wedge, diluting the law on protection of unborn human life.

Tonio Borg is a former deputy prime minister and European commissioner.


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