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Manichaeism, trees, and frozen embryos

If you have strong feelings about either, look away

If you have strong feelings about either frozen embryos or trees, I advise you to stop reading now. I would respect you for it, and I would respect you more if you don’t give me the usual litanies, from which, frankly, we all need a break.

First, a word on Manichaeism. If St Augustine or his mate Mani were shipwrecked in Malta in ancient history, I would not have blamed the Maltese for being so obstinate in upholding a world view where everything boils down to good and evil, right and wrong. Even the early Church wanted to have nothing to do with Mani’s obsession with this kind of dualism, and they quickly condemned his gnostic followers as heresiarchs—though I fear it was too late, as Augustine seems to have internalized that damn world-view and passed it on to us, even when he publicly denounced it.

Now we turn our attention to trees. Just like many things that start with banality, we recently attended to the latest debate over the precepts of green politics, having architects and professors, ministers, politicians, common and not so common people debating the virtues and vices of redesigning our urban environment, where the ineffable mysteries of Truth (with a capital “T”) found themselves expressed with great fervour and utter dedication.

Take Paola Square and Rabat Road as good examples. It all depends on how you put it. In Malta, if you happen to state that a tree has been “uprooted”, most probably you will be branded a crazy Labourite. If you state gingerly that trees are being “chopped down”, then you must be a mad Nationalist. Depending on which tribe you belong to, one side must be righteous while the other is the embodiment of pure evil even when it comes to a tree, a road, let alone a square.

What do poor Mani and Augustine have to do with Paola Square or Rabat Road? It seems that, in this particular case, as one appraises what is going on and broach the delicate issue of trees, squares, traffic and what not, one must take sides and like a good Augustinian discern how to come up with a way to proclaim on which side one happens to be while still pretending not to be Manichaeistic. This is done in case the on-line Labour, Nationalist, or Civil Society Holy Inquisitions, as well as an assortment of other self-proclaimed pious defenders of their respective faith, decide to trash you, spit on your forebears, and curse your future offspring for daring to speak your mind. Beyond that, the discussion is closed before it even starts.

This takes me to frozen embryos. Forgive me for being blunt, but I would argue that the debate over IVF in Malta was an object lesson in how two sides have managed to disagree on the basis of their fundamental agreement. Both Government and Opposition have premised their case on the argument that an embryo is a human person, and yet still disagreed on how to fudge the issue, both claiming to be “pro-life”.

This could well be a first in political disputes over fertility. Even Ireland’s fudged compromise over embryonic rights (which had to be overturned in the recent Referendum) was characterized by a debate based on clear premises. The dispute was well-defined. On one side there were those who argue that life begins from conception. On the other were those who uphold women’s rights over their body, and who called for a clear timeframe where after 13 weeks of gestation, the Law would protect the unborn child and the mother. As it happens, this was also the argument put across by Argentinian women who vigorously campaigned for a change in the Law and, a few weeks ago, succeeded.

This was not the case in Malta’s non-debate. Both sides have taken the Maltese electorate for a ride, because the real sides of this argument were intentionally ignored. When the PN proclaims itself to be the “pro-life party”, its aim is blatantly partisan. All it wants is to garner votes from an entrenched quarter, which risks alienating any liberals left in the Nationalist camp. Likewise, while the Labour Government claims to have enacted a “social democratic Law” that gives equal rights to all (as the Deputy Prime Minister recently argued), in effect this Law does not address the cardinal issue of equality—i.e., that of a woman’s right over her body. This is because this Law fails to provide a rational framework as found in any Secular State that would respect the woman’s right to choose in matters concerned with fertility.

What we got as a result has created the very same situation over which the Irish just went through another Referendum. Beyond all the fanfares, this Law does not provide a clear legal framework that would give women a right over their body within parameters where, as found in Western European democracies, the notion of personhood is established.

Instead, the woman’s rights remain ignored and her body is considered as an incubator—which, not unsurprisingly, attracts the ire of both pro-life and pro-choice campaigners. Whether you happen to be pro-life, pro-choice or would regard this divide as doing nothing but muddy the waters, the rights of women and the unborn child remain open to even more confusion and potential abuse.

However, this was bound to happen, given the obstinate Manichaeism by which our political class (with the support of its electoral base) continues to fudge every issue—immaterial whether the dispute happens to be over trees or frozen embryos.

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