Snapshot of a changing nation

Malta’s political parties often seem content with a status quo that no longer suffices to placate an increasingly demanding and independent-minded public

It is an undeniable fact that Maltese society has changed abundantly of late. Where but a few years ago the mood and opinion of the general public was largely easy to predict on any given issue, today’s reality is proving to be very different.

Our survey on Sunday deals with the state of the Catholic Church in 21st century Malta; indirectly, it also presents a clear snapshot of just how far-reaching this change has been.

Already, there was plenty of evidence that public opinion had radically shifted. The divorce referendum in 2011 was perhaps the most glaring recent example. But the change in public attitude towards homosexuality – as evidenced by the fact that both parties now seem to agree on full marriage equality for gay couples – is arguably a better indicator.  

Admittedly there is a tinge of political expediency to proceedings; but unlike the case with divorce, public resistance has been noticeably muted on this occasion… among younger generations in particular.

This seems to be true across the board. The results of our survey point towards a decline in Sunday mass attendance that is more prevalent among the young. While 65% of those aged less than 35 years do not attend, 74% of those aged over 55 years do.

Disagreement with the church’s teachings on contraception has also increased from 69% to 77%.

This however only confirms previous trends. The truly remarkable shift lies in a marked evolution in the way Malta perceives issues that were previously controversial – sometimes even taboo – until only a few years ago.

In some cases the changes were almost radical, when compared to those expressed in surveys conducted as recently as 2008 and 2010.

While therapeutic abortion clearly remains a no-go area to an overwhelming majority, agreement with abortion in specific cases (for instance, rape) has shot up from 20% to 31% when compared to 2008. 

More pertinently – given that there has been limited discussion on the subject in recent months – agreement with euthanasia for terminally ill patients suffering from unbearable pain has also risen from 41% to 53%.

Interestingly, there are other issues where the opposite is true. An overwhelming majority disagrees with the depiction of religious figures like Mohammed and Jesus Christ in satirical newspaper cartoons… which is of particular relevance, as Parliament is currently debating whether to remove Malta’s laws concerning vilification of religion.

It is perhaps unsurprising, however, that the one issue where attitudes have changed most sharply, is also one which was recently placed in the spotlight by a terminally ill citizen, calling for the legalisation of euthanasia.

Again, statistics indicate a younger (therefore growing) trend, and also an educational difference. Among 18 to 34 year olds, 65% agree with the right to die in this specific circumstance. Moreover 54% of the university educated and 59% of those with a post secondary education agree with euthanasia. 

The only categories opposed to euthanasia are those with a primary level of education and respondents aged over 55 years.

These changes are a reflection of any number of issues – there have been corresponding demographic shifts, arising in part from EU membership, resulting in a more cosmopolitan and variegated population; advances in education (and especially information technology) have also helped to propagate new ideas , and to introduce a multiplicity of perspectives that was previously all-but non-existent.

Regardless of whether one welcomes or regrets such developments, the existence of new trends of thought also brings with it new obligations for Malta’s legislators. However, with some notable exceptions, Malta’s legislators have been slow to catch up with the pace of change. It seems our political class has so far proved reluctant to engage with a fast-changing society.

When 56-year-old Joe Magro made an impassioned plea for a discussion on euthanasia – after being diagnosed with ALS, a deadly neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord – the reaction of all three parties was to wave the concern away. 

For too long now, the word ‘euthanasia’ has been bundled alongside ‘abortion’ as a by-word for a dystopian future that is best avoided. This is not conducive to a healthy debate on any subject, still less a medical issue that has serious consequences for people caught up in ordinary, everyday circumstances. 

This also places its finger squarely on a dilemma that is all too frequent. Malta’s political parties often seem content with a status quo that no longer suffices to placate an increasingly demanding and independent-minded public. To insist on ignoring evidence for this change is not only unfair on the part of politicians; it is also unwise, because if a political party ceases to appeal to genuine causes, it has also lost its very raison d’être.

In this case, the demand is very real and very urgent. A study published in the Malta Medical Journal in 2015, carried out by Dr Jurgen Abela from the University of Malta’s department of family medicine, revealed that 14.4% of general practitioners said they had received requests for euthanasia in the course of their professional careers. 

Clearly, this is not an issue Malta’s establishment can afford to continue ignoring.

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