Abortion debate: Between progress, Catholic morality and patriarchy

Upholding Malta’s abortion ban is a way of asserting national moral righteousness. But what kind of morality does this entail and what does it mean for women?

Since the ban does not prevent hundreds of abortions per annum from taking place elsewhere, the major goal of lobbying in favour of the current legislation is to keep abortion away from Malta in particular.
Since the ban does not prevent hundreds of abortions per annum from taking place elsewhere, the major goal of lobbying in favour of the current legislation is to keep abortion away from Malta in particular.

Apart from Vatican City, Malta is the only country in Europe which criminalises abortion under any circumstances. The provisions within the Criminal Code of Malta have practically remained untouched since their enactment in 1854.

Yet, it is a fact that local women travel abroad to access abortion. As the law recognises induced miscarriage as a criminal offence punishable by up to three and four years of imprisonment – for a pregnant woman and a medical practitioner respectively –  there are no official statistics on the number of women seeking the procedure abroad.

The pro-choice coalition Voice For Choice-L-għażla Tagħha estimates it at around 300 a year. Although this number is significantly below the European average (183 abortions per 1000 live births, as reported by WHO Europe), even a possibly underestimated figure indicates that women in Malta are no exception and undergo the procedure despite the blanket ban.

Celebrated by pro-life groups and challenged by the pro-choice lobby, the special status of Malta in relation to abortion is acknowledged by both sides of the divide. And just as was the case with the divorce and spring hunting referenda, the abortion debate transcends the limits of a practical, if controversial, matter, and enters the domain of identity politics and ideology.

Since the ban does not prevent hundreds of abortions per annum from taking place elsewhere, the major goal of lobbying in favour of the current legislation is to keep abortion away from Malta in particular. In a nutshell, a key argument against the decriminalisation of abortion is to preserve Maltese national identity as rooted in conservative politics, Catholic morality and family values.

Pro choice activists in Valletta announce their position on abortion in 2019,
Pro choice activists in Valletta announce their position on abortion in 2019,

Family values and superior national morality

Anyone following the debate is familiar with the dualistic narrative.

While the pro-choice perspective argues in favour of recognising a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and to ending an unwanted pregnancy, the pro-life camp insists that life begins at conception and equates terminating a pregnancy with murder. The pro-choice campaign is treated with much hostility by various segments of the Maltese population. Activists are verbally assaulted; their arguments dismissed.

Delving into the reasons for such vehement opposition to abortion in Malta, anthropologist Rachael Scicluna suggests that in societies where family ties are strong and conservative views on gender roles prevail, the concept of embryo is intrinsically linked to the concept of family. Thus, at a subconscious level, abortion gets perceived as a threat to the very foundations of Maltese kin society and, consequently, objecting to its introduction is a way of defending family values and the status quo.

While this hypothesis offers an insight into the pro-lifers’ social insecurities, there seems to be another narrative fueling hostility to abortion: a fear of outsiders’ intentions to dismantle core Maltese values.

In response to my request for a comment on the cases of Maltese women accessing abortion abroad, Malta Unborn Child Platform refuted the estimate: “We know, for example that around 55 women of Maltese nationality undergo abortion in the UK, but we do not know how many of those women travel from Malta or actually reside in the UK. There may be also foreign women, residing in Malta, who go for an abortion in the UK.”

Bluntly put, the organisation implies that having an abortion is incompatible with being a Maltese woman living in Malta.

A conspiracy of a sinister foreign plan to force abortions upon the Maltese is making the rounds in some people’s heads and on social media.

This is evident in personal attacks hurled at the prominent feminists Andrea Dibben and Lara Dimitrijevic, both of whom are Maltese albeit with foreign-sounding surnames. “Go do Satan’s work in your own country!!!” and “go back home and kill your babies” are common responses to their pledges. This conspiracy is also propagated by Gift of Life Malta: according to the organisation, having “political allies within and outside of Malta” is part of the pro-choice camp’s strategy.

Asserting that a woman must not be forced to gestate against her will stirs mass outrage. Female pro-choice activists are advised to watch over their own sexuality and assume responsibility for the pregnancy, even if it resulted from rape. One of the comments to the LovinMalta article that reported such verbal abuse read: “How many rapes [do] we have in Malta? Very rare / Even so a woman that got raped is always free to go abroad to kill the unwanted baby in case she got pregnant from rape.” Although this argument is based on a poorly informed perception of the infrequency of rape in Malta – sexual assault often goes unreported due to a victim-blaming stigma – it nevertheless demonstrates that it is possible to oppose decriminalisation of abortion in Malta and condone ‘murder’, as long as it happens elsewhere.

Another proof of the abortion ban being perceived as part of a national identity in need of protecting comes from the Church. By stating that “our work in favour of life at all stages underlines our identity as Maltese”, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Galea Curmi implied that the country’s devotion to Catholic faith is rivalled by the Vatican alone – the only other state in Europe which criminalises abortion.

President George Vella, too, spoke in favour of the current legislation at a recent event organised by the Malta Unborn Child Platform. His presence at the manifestation clearly signalled state support for the anti-choice cause – a national mission that is “on the right side of history.”

Furthermore, the President expressed doubt about the moral authority of the European Court of Justice where “you’re frowned upon if you do not accept abortion.” Considering that Malta’s political crisis and high-profile corruption remain a subject of international scrutiny, Vella’s statement is indeed politically loaded. Outsiders – immoral ‘baby-killers’ – are in no position to criticise the only remaining bastion of Christian values in Europe. In other words, upholding Malta’s abortion ban is a way of asserting national moral superiority.

And it could be the authorities’ effective means of diminishing international criticism, undermining verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights, and by extension – possibly brushing off the demands of constitutional reforms altogether.

A pro life rally in Valletta
A pro life rally in Valletta

Between ‘progress’ and ‘tradition’

As Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, director of Men against Violence, pointedly observed, the official demands to reform laws against abortion by the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner receive little support from the rule of law advocates in Malta. Civil society groups, striving to bring Maltese legislation in line with the rest of ‘normal’ European countries, usually so attentive to international assessment, turn a deaf ear to the calls for abolishing the abortion ban. What could be the reason for such a selective commitment to human rights as defined by international legal bodies?

Contemporary politics in Malta has been a trade-off between ‘progress’ and ‘tradition’. For the past few decades, the young independent republic sought to establish itself as a modern European state while, at the same time, remaining under the tight grip of the Catholic Church. An ambiguous compromise between embracing progress and preserving traditions has been reached on the basis of two criteria: profit-making and national pride.

‘Progress’ came in a financially lucrative form: free market economics, construction boom, luxury mega-developments, and ‘blockchain island’ fantasies. Corinthia chairman and founder Alfred Pisani pompously encouraged his compatriots to “always accept progress” – unless, it seems, this progress is unprofitable and undermines the authority of the Church, the guardian of conservative traditions.

A progressive stance on reproductive rights, thus, barely enjoys a fraction of the state’s enthusiasm for ‘progressive’ elite property developments.

What about Malta’s LGBTIQ legislation? Some may argue that by becoming the first country in Europe to ban gay conversion therapy in 2016 – and by legalising same-sex marriage a year later – the Maltese state has declared its commitment to progressive social policy. Seen from a different perspective, however, this was rather a win for national pride. The reform gave even conservative locals a reason to savor the international recognition and be proud of Malta leaping ahead of the curve in something, compared to the rest of Europe.

In the case of abortion, it is precisely the blanket ban that makes Malta ‘special’ in the eyes of its citizens – distinct from other formally secular European states. Defending the country’s role as a citadel of superior morality, besieged by ‘baby-killers’, could be a seductively heroic narrative. Also, the abortion ban as an untouchable ‘tradition’ may function as an apparent compensation for the loss of natural and architectural heritage, sacrificed on the altar of economic ‘progress’.

Institutionalised stigmatisation of women

“Does our President consider his citizens who have had an abortion, murderers?” Voice For Choice-L-għażla Tagħha asked in response to George Vella’s pro-life endorsement. This is certainly one of the most pertinent questions of the debate. Another question: if abortion is murder, why does the punishment for induced miscarriage range from eighteen months to three and four years of imprisonment? Isn’t this too mild a punishment for murderers?

As noted by former Labour deputy mayor Desirée Attard in her doctoral thesis, the Criminal Code itself implies that “a woman’s life is more valuable than that of the foetus.” As per Article 242, the punishment for performing an abortion that results in the death of the woman is that of life imprisonment. This disparity in punishment – four years versus a life sentence – “means that the law recognises that a foetus is not a person”, unlike a woman.

Thus, if the legislators did not equate abortion with wilful homicide in 1854, what makes this an acceptable argument in 2020? Such contradictions further reveal the deeply ideological basis of the pro-life argument, whose goal is to preserve the conservative status quo by denying women an established human right and exerting control over their bodies.

Apart from being legally incorrect, equating abortion with murder means regarding women who have undergone the procedure as murderers. This is no less than a means of institutional oppression and ostracisation of women. Both the endorsement of the anti-choice perspective by the President and the common perception that links it to Maltese identity and national morality celebrate Malta as a conservative patriarchal state.

Society and the state force Maltese women into shame for accessing a healthcare service available to women in the absolute majority of countries worldwide. Such marginalisation, reinforced stigma and cultivation of guilt are detrimental to women’s psychological and social well-being; they cause loss of self-esteem and induce fear of abandonment. With a blessing of both the state and society, the ‘pro-life’ camp turns fellow women citizens into outcasts who must suffer in silence.

Is stigmatising compatriots a sound basis for moral righteousness?