Women making history

Those who even fail to recognise the kind of compromise proposed in Bill 28, a law aimed squarely at protecting the life of women when an unviable pregnancy threatens their health, are sticking their heads in the changing sands of time

Women are making history in Malta. Just over a decade ago, the mere mention of abortion rights could stoke feelings of irrational disgust aimed at such a radical proposition. An attempt to entrench the crime of abortion in the Maltese Constitution a half-decade earlier, moved forcefully by men with no clear agenda other than that of forcing a ‘culture war’ on a very subdued liberal voice, failed. Then, in the aftermath of the divorce referendum of 2011, and the Labour agenda on civil liberties, a historic change swept across Malta.

It was, in part, thanks to the pioneering decisions and political belief in modern, European civil liberties that so many activists could also be inspired to amplify their voices without fear of recrimination. The time had come to give wide berth to the aspirations of so many members of Maltese society who had been left by the wayside of this island’s human development: unmarried couples seeking civil union rights, gay couples desirable of marriage equality, gender-identity rights for so many individuals who had been left alone to suffer the ignominy of not being recognised by the State, a wider recognition of IVF rights for single, unmarried, and gay mothers together with a radical introduction of PGD testing.

In each single episode of Labour’s emancipatory civil liberties agenda, the adversaries to these developments echoed the frustrations last heard from the losers of the divorce referendum. And at every turn of these historic developments, these adversaries have been exposed as a variety of conservative outfits and religious zealots, who view every single act of progress as a kind of ‘Marxist’ plot for the equality they do not believe in.

In 2011, the great divorce referendum exasperated the Maltese Catholic Church. The Church had been caught on the back foot. Fast-forward 12 years, the Nationalist Party, an opponent of divorce then, today is still facing its own political crisis, yet it has found temporary unity in embracing the anti-choice movement that is opposing a tweak to Malta’s ideological and irrational, abortion ban.

The risks to the PN, as well as to Malta’s Catholic Church, from this kind of anti-choice opposition could be many. Their bid not to recognise the changing face of Malta, the voice of a young, outspoken, radicalised generation that is not enamoured with the big men of Maltese politics and religion, and whose aspirations in life are formed by international experiences and aspirations far removed from the tiny core of the village square, will pose a serious existential risk to them. A survey commissioned by the Maltese archdiocese on abortion in December itself carries a warning about how a large swathe of Maltese are ready to view abortion as a matter of healthcare – rather than some moralistic badge of identity; and the PN too should also heed the signs carried in that survey, that young voters are not inclined to stick to exceptionalist notions of ‘Malteseness’ that deny women basic sexual health and reproductive rights.

It is arguable that many individual conservative movements were once ‘hidden’ inside big tent parties like the Nationalist Party. Yet since 2018, an unstoppable debate on sexual and reproductive rights for women has been energised by the Women’s Rights Foundation, young human rights activists, and the first coalition of pro-choice doctors.

Unlike the uninvited, conservative uproar of the 2005 campaign to entrench the crime of abortion in the Constitution, today Malta’s feminist voices have broken the ceiling of entrenched prejudice – they are equal participants in this debate, not token guests on a TV panel designed to obliterate any rational discourse on abortion. Indeed, it is the opposition to the criminal law amendment on abortion in the case threats to the life and health of a mother, that are sounding dogmatic and irrational, refusing to recognise the changing tide of history.

Even in the UK of the 1960s, prominent members of the Anglican Church (never the Roman Catholic Church) were ready to support abortion law reform in the context of a high rate of illegitimate children (19.1 per 1,000 in 1961-65). Strong supporters of abortion law reform like Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich recognised abortion “with all proper safeguards... [as] a goal of love”, understanding that as many as 50,000 illegal abortions were taking place in the UK at the hands of unqualified abortionists. The resulting bill of 1967 included such safeguards such as having two doctors acting in ‘good faith’ to sign off on such terminations, an unhappy compromise for supporters of abortion reform.

Those who even fail to recognise the kind of compromise proposed in Bill 28, a law aimed squarely at protecting the life of women when an unviable pregnancy threatens their health, are sticking their heads in the changing sands of time. Women of courage have taken up this fight and brought us to an important point in our historical development: Malta must heed this call.