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Forum on Abortion: Historic Move Forwards

22.06.2009


Friday 19 June will be remembered in history as the day on which the public debate on the decriminalization of abortion moved from the sterile terrain of the eternal debate of "for" and "against" to the question of what`s wrong with the law. The arguments thus become the intellectual ammunition that will be necessary in the struggle to bring about the suspension of the existing law, and the decriminalization of abortion.

All speakers invited were in favour of decriminalization, and the arguments put forward were very thoroughly thought out, and passionately stated. The Forum, the first organized by the new Common Front on Abortion* set up after the death following her illegal abortion of the photographic journalist Marie-Noelle Derby, was held at the Rose-Hill Municipal Council Chamber at 6:00 pm. The Hall was absolutely packed. Members of the anti-abortion associations were also present "en force", but their argumentation during open debate was weak, and was frozen in its same old somewhat fundamentalist tracks. Other than women in the organizations in the Common Front, there were also people present from the Rose-Hill neighbourhood, young people, intellectuals of the country, LALIT members, students, doctors, lawyers and journalists. Extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd.

Chaired ably and wittily by Touria Prayag, the Forum went on with questions and comments and speeches from the floor to past 8:00 pm. And lively debate continued outside afterwards, in front of the Max Boulle Gallery until well after that.

The three speeches divided the question up very succinctly, as all three orators, being experienced speakers, did not unnecessarily repeat what anyone had already said. The fourth speaker, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General spoke over the phone. The theme of the debate had been carefully chosen by the Common Front: "The 1838 anti-abortion Law: Its relevance Today".

The Attorney General, Rama Valayden, speaking by telephone through the microphone (he was laid up in bed), said he was personally in favour of decriminalization, as everyone knows, and that his party the Mouvement Republicain is, too. As Attorney General, he said he had already a prepared law, and was waiting for Cabinet go-ahead. He commended the work of the Front, and earlier struggle by the Muvman Liberasyon Fam and Lalit.

Barrister Jean Claude Bibi, a former Attorney General himself, dissected the legal from the moral issues involved, and said the law could no longer continue to make "criminals" of women because of some peoples` religious or moral interpretation of when a new human life begins. He examined in detail what a "crime" is. And, he questioned the "locus standi" of the Catholic Church to give moral lessons about respect for human life, given its further back and even more recent history, for example, of executions, witch hunts and of blessing soldiers as they go to drop bombs from dizzy heights on people, as recently as the Iraq war.

Ram Seegobin speaking both as medical practitioner and as a leading member of LALIT concentrated on the precise ways in which the law is "archaic". It is archaic, he argued, not just because of its age, but because it was put in place at a time when medical technology was non-existent, whereas today it is very advanced. The 1838 law refers to abortion being illegal only at that stage of pregnancy when a woman is "quick with child" or has a "miscarriage", when both expressions refer to late pregnancy, not the whole of pregnancy. In addition, the law was proclaimed by Colonial powers and has never been voted in by anyone elected. It is a decree. Yet women are exposed to 10 years prison on the basis of this confused, old-fashioned and non-legitimate law.

Kishore Pertab gave a speech that could have been his argumentation in Court recently when Shabeela Kalla was charged with illegal abortion, and would have been his argumentation had his client not fortunately benefited from all charges being dropped. He argued that the English version of the bilingual Criminal Code applies, even though a previous 1810 French law was repromulgated in 1838. Section 3 of the law is in English only, and there are substantial differences between the English and the French, not just differences of interpretation. For example, the English version of the law, by ordinary dictionary definition, by medical definition, and by legal definition, clearly already makes abortion perfectly legal until fairly advanced stages of pregnancy. He would very much like a chance to take this point to the Supreme Court, as there is absolutely no jurisprudence on this point yet. He said that interpretation of criminal law has to be "literal" and strict. And according to existing jurisprudence, whenever there is confusion it has to give the interpretation that is most favourable to the accused. This flows naturally from the need to prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt, referred to by Ram Seegobin in his speech.

All speakers thus thought the present law had no relevance to today`s society, and today`s women. Interestingly, Ram Seegobin said how he thought the "pro-choice" nick-name was inappropriate for those in favour of decriminalization of abortion, because in his experience as general practitioner in the UK where abortion is legal, women when they decide to have an abortion invariably use the expression: "Doctor I haven`t got a choice." Similarly, to monopolize the term "pro-life" when one is against abortion is strange for doctors whose lives are dedicated to saving other peoples` lives and taking care of the quality of their lives. Jean Claude Bibi also distanced himself from this caricatural division into two camps.

There were about 10 speeches from the floor, two by people against all decriminalization, Mrs. Leblanc and Mr. Sauvage, and others in favour. Notably, Dr. Amenah Sorefan spoke of the difficulties facing doctors in their day-to-day care for woman patients with the existing law, Jean-Marie Richard is in favour of decriminalization but believes that this is a sign of a failure in society, Lindsay Descombes raised key philosophical points that relativize the current religious points of view, an officer from the State Law Office, like Kishore Pertab, would appreciate jurisprudence in the meantime until there is a new law, while Lindsey Collen spoke of why women decide to have recourse to an abortion, and then the fate that awaits different classes of women.

*The organizations that make up the Common Front are: Mauritius Alliance of Women, the Mauritius Family Planning and Welfare Association, Women in Networking, Muvman Liberasyon Fam, International Women`s League, The Federation of Parastatal Bodies and Other Unions, Amnesty International Mauritius, and individual journalists and Members of the National Assembly.