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Abortion debate goes mainstream in Malta

MSIDA, Malta — The controversial debate on Maltas stringent abortion laws has shifted from Facebook ..

MSIDA, Malta — The controversial debate on Maltas stringent abortion laws has shifted from Facebook forums to the highest levels of politics just in time for the European election.

In the weeks leading up to Saturdays ballot, the opposition Nationalist Party took out billboard adverts across the island championing the partys anti-abortion message. Its leader Adrian Delia called the European election a “referendum on abortion” — accusing the ruling Labour Party of secretly supporting greater abortion rights.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was pressed to respond, and said the government doesnt have a mandate to change abortion laws. Ninety-five percent of Maltese do not agree with abortion in the first 12 weeks of gestation (a health service available nearly everywhere else in Europe), according to the most recent polls.

In a country with one of the highest number of social media users and some of the strictest abortion laws in the EU, abortion has always been a hot topic on Facebook forums. After Irelands major shift this year, Maltas abortion-rights activists have ramped up pressure to take that debate mainstream — and say they are gaining traction.

“Its moving faster now than Ive seen in 10 years,” said Lara Dimitrijevic, the director of Maltas Womens Rights Foundation.

“Whether they vote green, whether they vote left, whether they vote right, center-left or center-right, the people we hear, they do not want abortion” — Alfred Sant, Labour MEP

“Abortion has raised its head here in almost every election since the mid- to late-90s,” said Antoine Borg, an independent MEP candidate, adding that its long been considered political suicide in the country. “But the tide of popular opinion is changing too. In days gone by, we would have never had a feminist group openly arguing for abortion. We wouldnt have had a group of doctors arguing the same point. Now we do.”

Those in favor argue Muscat has a big enough cushion of support — his party leads the Nationalists by 15 percentage points, according to a poll this month — to speak out in favor of abortion rights, and move in line with socialist parties across the bloc. Both anti-abortion and abortion-rights campaigners say they believe some Labour politicians may be personally in favor of changing the law. In a small but significant shift, the prime minister said during a media interview this monththat its time for a “sober discussion” on the “important subject.”

Yet the ruling party remains steadfast in its position. Labour MEP Alfred Sant, a former prime minister who has been knocking on doors as he bids for reelection, said over and over that “this is not an issue” for voters.

“Whether they vote green, whether they vote left, whether they vote right, center left or center right,” Sant said, “the people we hear, they do not want abortion.”

Building a movement

Mina Tolu has heard the phrase “political suicide” a lot in the past few months.

Driving around the island, the Maltese MEP candidate and French fellow candidate Antoine Tifine had a routine for getting their message across in the late hours of a warm Friday night. When they found a good spot, Tolu pulled the car over and Tifine jumped out to tie a couple of campaign posters (a flyer glued to recycled hand-cut carboard) to poles, some of which ended up upside down in the rush.

“Were just trying to make some noise,” said Tolu.

Tolu, who identifies as a nonbinary trans person, is a big name in Maltese LGBTQ activism — famously calling out Hollywood actress Emma Watson three years ago for using “she” pronouns, when Tolu uses “they” and “them.”

Running as an MEP for the countrys Green party, Democratic Alternative, Tolu was the first to mention abortion in the election, calling for a “respectful debate” in a Facebook video that went viral in February. “Why cant we discuss this in a way that goes beyond these posts and comments on Facebook? Why is it an issue thats being ignored?”

Shortly after, one of the founders of Democratic Alternative left the party in protest to start his own MEP campaign.

Tolu has practically no chance of winning a seat in the European Parliament. But after the U.K.-based Abortion Support Network announced at the start of the year that it would extend its services to Malta, helping women traveling for an abortion, Tolus video was significant.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat says his government doesnt have the mandate necessary to change abortion laws | Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

In March, the Womens Rights Foundation and other civil society organizations announced a “pro-choice coalition” for the election calling for abortion laws to change. A group of 50 doctors supporting abortion rights formed in May.

Dimitrijevic, sitting in the shade at a café in Valletta, suggested the Nationalist Partys strong intervention has in some ways legitimized their campaign. Much of the partys messaging seeks to argue that abortion could become a reality in Malta if people vote against the conservatives.

After the success of Irish activists, their Maltese counterparts are “employing the same tools,” said Mara Clarke from the Abortion Support Network. But Malta is a long way behind. “Ive been joking and saying that its 50 years behind where Ireland was 10 years ago,” Clarke said. “But its probably 10 or 20 years behind where Ireland was 10 years ago.”

She added, “But I think things will move faster. I hope anyway.”

“It would never be accepted over here. It would be the red light in Malta” — Ivan Grech Mintoff, Euroskeptic MEP candidate

Anti-abortion activists are getting louder too. Ivan Grech Mintoff, an MEP candidate standing for the Euroskeptic Alliance for Change (AB) party, spearheaded a pledge to enshrine Maltas strict abortion laws into the constitution. The Nationalist Party signed it, as did the far-right Maltese Patriots Movement (MPM) and center-left Democratic Party (PD) — although PD candidates have since raised concerns. Labour and Tolus AD were the two parties that did not sign the pledge.

Grech Mintoff also created a Facebook group against abortion that gathered more than 21,000 members in three weeks. He sees that as clear proof Malta does not support abortion.

“It would never be accepted over here,” Grech Mintoff said. “It would be the red light in Malta.”

On a lonely island

Why is Malta an outlier on abortion in Europe? Some abortion rights activists say its the Catholic Churchs influence; some say its how small the country is; some say its simple patriarchy.

For others, even asking the question means you dont understand Malta.

“Remember we were only very recently [a member of] the EU, so you couldnt go [work] anywhere in other countries, and we didnt have many foreigners coming here,” said Francesca Fenech Conti, the founder of the Women for Women Facebook group. “We were an island alone for many years in the middle of the Mediterranean, totally ruled by religion.”

This, Conti said, creates a closeness but also a “society that is always judging you.” Conti wrote her university thesis on women who had unplanned pregnancies due to contraception failure. She spoke to one woman about her visit to the doctor 10 years ago for a pregnancy test.

After getting the results, her doctor told her: “Youre pregnant! I told your mother!” Conti recalled.

“Everybody knows each other,” Conti said.

An anti-abortion billboard in Malta | Jillian Deutsch/POLITICO

The countrys stance on abortion has held even as it became a beacon for progressive LGBTQ policies. After decades of grassroots campaigning, Malta legalized gay marriage in 2017 and offers gay and lesbian couples access to IVF — it was ranked at the top of 49 European countries in the latest Rainbow Europe Map.

The country legalized divorce in 2011 and the morning-after pill became available in 2016. Abortion remains illegal in any circumstance.

Its not possible to know the total number of women who have illegal abortions, but according to estimates cited by the Womens Rights Foundation, around 200 women order abortion pills online and nearly 400 travel abroad for an abortion each year.

One woman, Fleur (not her real name), did so 15 years ago after she got pregnant from a one-night stand. At the time she was a student, holding down two jRead More – Source

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One-in-five suffers mental health condition in conflict zones: new UN report

More than one-in-five people living in conflict-affected areas suffers from a mental illness, accord..

More than one-in-five people living in conflict-affected areas suffers from a mental illness, according to a new UN-backed report, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to call for increased, sustained investment in mental health services in those zones.

Around 22 per cent of those affected, suffer depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, according to an analysis of 129 studies published in The Lancet – a United Kingdom-based peer-reviewed medical journal.

“The new estimates, together with already available practical tools for helping people with mental health conditions in emergencies, add yet more weight to the argument for immediate and sustained investment, so that mental and psychosocial support is made available to all people in need living through conflict and its aftermath,” said study author Mark van Ommeren, who works in WHOs Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

The study also shows that about nine per cent of conflict-affected populations have a moderate to severe mental health condition; substantially higher than the global estimate for these mental health conditions in the general population.

“Depression and anxiety appeared to increase with age in conflict settings, and depression was more common among women than men”, according to the study.

The revised estimates use data from 39 countries published between 1980 and August 2017, categorized cases as mild, moderate or severe. Natural disasters and public health emergencies, such as recent Ebola virus outbreaks in Africa, were not included.

The findings suggested that past studies underestimated the burden of mental health conditions in conflict-affected areas,

showing increased rates of severe, moderate and mild mental health issues, with the latter being the most prevalent.

“I am confident that our study provides the most accurate estimates available today of the prevalence of mental health conditions in areas of conflict”, said lead author of the study Fiona Charlson of the University of Queensland, Australia and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in the United States.

In 2016, there were 53 ongoing conflicts in 37 countries, meaning that 12 per cent of the worlds population was living in an active conflict zone – an all-time high. Moreover, the fact that nearly 69 million people globally have been forcibly displaced by violence and conflict, makes it the highest global number since the Second World War. (more…)

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GM fungus rapidly kills 99% of malaria mosquitoes, study suggests

A fungus – genetically enhanced to produce spider toxin – can rapidly kill huge numbers of the mosqu..

A fungus – genetically enhanced to produce spider toxin – can rapidly kill huge numbers of the mosquitoes that spread malaria, a study suggests.

Trials, which took place in Burkina Faso, showed mosquito populations collapsed by 99% within 45 days.

The researchers say their aim is not to make the insects extinct but to help stop the spread of malaria.

The disease, which is spread when female mosquitoes drink blood, kills more than 400,000 people per year.

Worldwide, there are about 219 million cases of malaria each year.

Conducting the study, researchers at the University of Maryland in the US – and the IRSS research institute in Burkina Faso – first identified a fungus called Metarhizium pingshaense, which naturally infects the Anopheles mosquitoes that spread malaria.

The next stage was to enhance the fungus. "They're very malleable, you can genetically engineer them very easily," Prof Raymond St Leger, from the University of Maryland, told BBC News.

They turned to a toxin found in the venom of a species of funnel-web spider in Australia.

The genetic instructions for making the toxin were added to the fungus's own genetic code so it would start making the toxin once it was inside a mosquito.

"A spider uses its fangs to pierce the skin of insects and inject toxins, we replaced the fangs of spider with Metarhizium," Prof St Leger explained. (more…)

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Journalist ‘no-platformed’ by GPs over Enoch Powell tweet

The Royal College of GPs has rescinded Julia Hartley-Brewer's invitation to speak at its 2019 c..

The Royal College of GPs has rescinded Julia Hartley-Brewer's invitation to speak at its 2019 conference after doctors complained about a tweet defending Enoch Powell.

Hundreds of people signed a petition calling for the cancellation over her "highly controversial views".

Ms Hartley-Brewer said "Twitter offence archaeologists" were punishing her.

The RCGP said it "promotes inclusivity" and her views were "too much at odds" with its "core values".

Ms Hartley-Brewer had been expected to join a panel of guests in October for the conference being held in Liverpool.

But more than 700 people signed a petition calling for members of the RCGP to "boycott" her presence, noting her "controversial" views.

In a deleted tweet from 2016, Ms Hartley-Brewer said "Powell wasn't a racist" and referred to Tony Blair calling him "one of the great figures of 20th century British politics".

She also said: "I'm not defending Powell, I just don't see anything in the Rivers speech that he got wrong."

Enoch Powell was an MP most famous for his 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, where he said by permitting mass immigration the country was "heaping up its own funeral pyre".

Responding to the RCGP's decision for the Spectator, Ms Hartley-Brewer said she was "commenting on the accuracy of his predictions" about integration, rather than making a moral judgment which endorsed his views. (more…)

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