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MSM-MMM-PT-PMSD Bill on abortion may be tabled next Session

23.09.2011

A Bill that is essentially an MSM-MMM-PT-PMSD Bill to Legalize Abortion may be tabled at next Session of Parliament. This has provoked the anti-abortion forces in Mauritius, mainly clustered around para-religious organizations.

The anti-woman and anti-abortion brigade has recently mounted a rather weak pre-emptive strike.

They know, as everyone else knows, that the State, in its broad sense, is keen to humanize the draconian anti-abortion law that dates from the 1838 Criminal Code, still causing women inordinate suffering. The MSM-MMM set up a Task Force when they were last in Government, and the PT-PMSD intend to legislate based on this. So, that is, at long last, the whole of the mainstream political field. And of course, there are those who have fought the archaic colonial law for decades: the quasi-totality of the women’s movement, the human rights movement, the main contraception and family planning organization, not to mention others like the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition who have criticized it, as well, of course, as LALIT, the only political party to have kept up a consistently strong struggle for decriminalization. All of these are strongly in favour of decriminalization of some kind. Mauritius signing up to CEDAW also adds international pressure, as the country finds itself isolated alongside dictatorships of various kinds, which still keep women criminalized for recourse to abortion under any circumstances.

But, what was the logic of the timing of the anti-abortion league’s recent pre-emptive strike?

They launched their pre-emptive strike through a large-circulation Sunday newspaper, Week-End, which on page one of its 28 August edition announced, as if it were “news”, that the Government is intending to decriminalize abortion under certain limited conditions. But it was hardly news. For a start, the National Assembly was not due to meet again for two whole months, not until 18 October. And it is only the National Assembly, of course, that can legislate.

A mini-frenzy was created in the Press. Debates on Radio, in the newspapers. Journalists against abortion illustrating their dossiers with visuals of near 9-month pregnant tummies and photos of foetuses sucking their thumbs (See http://www.lifeandlibertyforwomen.org/truth_about_photos.html for critique of the use of inaccurate and even falsified visuals by anti-abortionists). Soon it became apparent why all the frenzy. There was an annual religious festival on 8 September, Pere Laval, and the frenzy was clearly designed to force the Archbishop to speak up there, allowing Week-End’s sister-newspaper, Le Mauricien, to have a banner page one heading on 9 September. Then Weekend three days later could give Ms Dinan two articles and the Archbishop one: these three articles made up 3 entire pages ceded to the anti-abortion lobby in one newspaper.

The pre-emptive strike seems to have back-fired somewhat.

Ms Dinan, leader of the anti-abortion brigade despite clearly having some pull in the Week-End/Le Mauricien newspaper group suffered a serious defeat in the first round of the debate she provoked. On Radio Plus, which pitted Rajni Lallah of LALIT and the Muvman Liberasyon Fam, solo, against Ms Dinan, and two priests on recordings. But Ms Dinan lost against Rajni’s calm, clear, caring argumentation. Ms Dinan was so weak that she was reduced by the end to muttering phrases about how much “blood” there was in abortions, about foetal “little” body parts, and generally doing her best to make all women who have ever had to take this difficult path in our lives, suffer as much psychological trauma as she could possibly get us to suffer for the rest of our days! And to cause the fear of hell and damnation to rise in all men, especially those already afraid of the sight of the blood of periods, of child-birth, of miscarriages and of gynae wards. (The sight of a woman after a failed backstreet abortion is, of course, much worse, Ms. Dinan.) Anyway, prior to the program, Ms. Dinan had tried to daunt Rajni Lallah in the waiting room by other means. First she went on and on about how old, weak and tired she now is, while announcing nastily that a neighbour of hers has supposedly stopped greeting her since he joined LALIT, adding for good measure that this is what she admires about LALIT: our lack of hypocrisy! She could win a Gold Award for the most devious attempt to undermine the adversary before a debate! But, all this could not help her. The debate ended 10 points to Rajni, zero to Ms. Dinan.

On Friday last, 16 September, Ms. Touria Prayag, one of the three Editors of L’Express, literally made Father Labour talk gibberish in an interview on the subject. It was a knock-out. (It is worth going back to read it.)

So affected was Ms Touria Prayag’s co-editor, Gilbert Ahnee, that he wrote a contorted editorial in L’Express Dimanche arguing basically that Government would need to spend an awful lot of money if it decriminalized abortion if it were to offer a good free health service (this is doubtful, as the 1,500 annual admissions from post-backstreet-abortion complications are very costly and will decrease in number, while the abortive pill is quite inexpensive on a health service, and will certainly replace many D & Cs and aspiration). Anyway, given that money will, his argument goes, be spent on abortions, the State should “thus” allot a similar amount of money to people like Ms. Dinan, who he names. So, once again people close to para-religious organizations are after “une allocation de l’Etat”. It was the same for when contraception was introduced into the health services before Independence, when the worst blackmail was used, until money was allocated to Action Familiale. It is often the same around education issues. People in these para-religious organizations oppose progress on such flimsy pretexts that one can only assume it is the usual quest for more State money. Now, on the abortion issue, when the Archbishop can hardly resist the pressure, given the Vatican’s line, the broker is curiously … a newspaper editor. On abortion, the last time around, it was a man from Action Familiale who asked the then Minister of Women’s Rights Ms Seeburn for a “stimulus package” in exchange for decriminalization. Right there, in front of us all, bartering for money from the State. Most of the 100 or more women and dozen or so men present rolled our eyes up at the ceiling.

Anyway, why did the anti-abortion people take this hazardous step of a pre-emptive strike? If everything stays as it is, they win. Or do they? The existing law still reads: Any person who by any food, drink, medicine, or by violence, or by any other means, procures the miscarriage of any woman quick with child, or supplies the means of procuring such miscarriage, whether the woman consents or not, shall be punished by penal servitude for a term not exceeding 10 years. The like punishment shall be pronounced against any woman who procures her own miscarriage, or who consents to make use of the means pointed out or administered to her with that intent, if such miscarriage ensues. (Section 235 Criminal Code).

Many things have changed the balance of forces in society that have put the anti-abortion league into disarray. This explains their need for a strike.

Firstly, the only existing draft for a Bill was done for the MSM-MMM government, that is to say, Jugnauth-Bérenger’s Government, when Pramila Patten and the Task Force proposed that abortion be legal in cases of risk to the mother’s health, foetal abnormalities, and after rape and incest. Now the PT-PMSD government, that is to say Ramgoolam-Duval’s Government, is presenting, the Press announces, what is, to all intents and purposes, the same Bill. Well, this means that the anti-abortion league is very short of proper political support. All the four national parties in Parliament in Parliament are involved in the draft Bill, therefore cannot oppose it directly. Such a propitious situation for some form of legalization has never existed before.

Secondly, during the 2009 Common Front on Abortion, after the death of Marie-Noelle Derby, women’s organizations called for the suspension of the existing law, while debate continues. This is what we signed up to: Given the recent deaths of Marie-Noelle Derby and other lesser known women, and with the aim of preventing further deaths due to illegal abortion, We demand that, as the debate on a new law continues, the Government calls on the National Assembly, in the meantime, to suspend the 1838 anti-abortion law. The pressure for this suspension will be very strong the moment there is another abortion death. And this kind of suspension will alarm the para-religious objectors, should it become inevitable because of the absence of consensus on a new law, because it will mean decriminalization will be across the board. It will be as a direct result of the anti-abortion league preventing the other more circumscribed law coming in to force.

Thirdly comes perhaps the catalyst. In 2009, the Director of Public Prosecutions withdrew prosecution against a young woman who had had an abortion, Shabeela Kalla. This was partly as a result of a long MLF campaign to the effect that the words “quick with child” in the law were, in any ordinary English, medical English or legal English, a clear reference to that particular phase of pregnancy at which foetal movements have begun to be felt by the woman; thus abortion is only illegal after 15-20 weeks’ pregnancy under the existing archaic law. The DPP now says publicly, and reasonably, that it is not permissible to prosecute people under a confused and confusing law. For the public to be able to respect laws, they must be readily understandable, he says. All this to say that the law criminalizing abortion is effectively suspended.

So, those against abortion are having to accept the MSM-MMM-PT-PMSD bill, which is no doubt in the pipeline, as being better than the present situation. So, it seems they are most likely just raising the stakes a little for a bit more money, or a “stimulus package” as one of their spokesmen put it.

All this to say, that the anti-abortion lobby is at long last very weak. It is relying on emotional arguments, dubious photographs, half-hearted calls for stalling measures like a referendum, and using the Press and Radio, which are probably, in the main, only vaguely conscious of being manipulated, as they run from “scoop” to “news” to “scoop” to “news” in order to put up sales and audiomats.

Maybe journalists should ask a higher proportion of secular people for their opinions on matters like abortion, since it is the National Assembly, a secular body that will change the law, on the one hand, and since many religiously strict people are unable to change their stand, on the other, so are not strictly speaking able to be influenced by debate. Journalists quite rightly avoid posing too many questions to the various para-religious organizations on what they think about wage compensation, what they think about the effect of IRS’s on the environment, what they think about food security and what they think about continued planting of cane and pouring concrete into arable land, what they think of the future of the hotel industry for most of the people of the country, what they think of the Employment Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act. The same caution should be used in choosing who to ask to comment on women’s issues, too.

LALIT Women’s Commission