[ANALYSIS] Five reasons why abortion did not rock Abela’s boat

Despite the noise created by the anti-abortion lobby and opposition of stalwarts within its own ranks, Labour has gained a couple of points in the first month of 2023. JAMES DEBONO gives five reasons why Labour has survived unscathed

Anti-abortion activists light red candles around a printout of a baby outside Parliament (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Anti-abortion activists light red candles around a printout of a baby outside Parliament (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

With the Nationalist Party rediscovering a sense of purpose and unity in opposing the part-decriminalisation of abortion, many expected the party to make some electoral inroads.

MaltaToday’s first survey of 2023 proved otherwise. Not only did the PN shed support but the Labour Party registered its first increase since last year’s March general election.

The abortion issue provided the PN with an opportunity to unite and be in synch with a wider movement that included the church, traditional professional elites and crucially, segments of old Labour represented by President George Vella and president emeritus Marie Louise Coleiro Preca.

But in finding unity, the PN was also alienating key demographics, especially younger and more educated voters.

In the end, protests against abortion made a lot of noise but failed to rock Labour’s boat. These are the five reasons why:

1. It’s the economy stupid

The abortion issue in the shape of a timid reform which only allows terminations in very limited circumstances – if a woman’s life or health is in danger - does not influence party choice.

The PN is in the habit of crying wolf on abortion, banking on surveys showing a vast majority of Maltese opposing the introduction of what in most EU member states is considered a personal decision and a civil right.

The PN has already done so on very flimsy grounds under Adrian Delia when an attempt to turn the MEP elections in 2019 into a referendum on abortion was largely rejected by voters.

This time around the party was at least reacting to a tangible change introduced by the Labour government. For a party desperately in need of a battle cry to fire up its supporters and possibly make inroads among more socially conservative Labour voters, party strategists smelt an opportunity.

Yet it may well be the case that while culture wars on abortion can trigger keyboard warriors, larger segments of the electorate consider such issues as secondary to economic issues. So far Labour is still rewarded for navigating the ship in stormy international waters and mitigating the impact through cash injections and subsidies often directed at the most vulnerable.  Of course, some segments of society are feeling the pinch in terms of low income and housing affordability but the PN hardly prioritises these issues.

And voters worried about corruption, inequalities and environmental degradation are now more likely to protest by not voting rather than support a PN obsessed by culture wars with no bearing on daily life.

In difficult times voters are more likely to choose the leader perceived to be the better ship captain than to rally behind the anti-abortion cause. In such circumstances the PN should be focusing on projecting itself as the responsible and fairer manager of the public good rather than a single-issue pressure group.

2. The silent majority

Abortion touches the raw nerve of a loud minority but feelings are more nuanced among a larger segment of the electorate.

A majority of voters may be nominally against abortion but polls on such matters do not measure the intensity of feelings of those involved.  Similar surveys in the past had also showed a majority against child adoptions by same sex couples, but this reform hardly impacted voting patterns.

While abortion is a more emotive issue, it may well be the case that even voters, who in a generic way oppose abortion, are not as obsessed with the issue as the keyboard warriors who consider a timid reform of abortion laws as the end of the world.

For many, abortion may be more of a personal opinion which may even change in reaction to real life situations, than an overriding issue which determines which party to voter for.

Opposition leader Bernard Grech addressing a public meeting organised by the PN in January, titled ‘Yes, in favour of life’
Opposition leader Bernard Grech addressing a public meeting organised by the PN in January, titled ‘Yes, in favour of life’

3. Crying wolf

A majority of voters may not support the introduction of abortion but the antics of the pro-life movement are a turn off.

People generally hate it when an issue is stuffed down their throat by a vocal lobby, which pretends to have a monopoly on the truth. Moreover, some voters are bound to be taken aback by the doom and gloom of preachers who make a relatively minor reform, which leaves the ban on abortion in most cases intact, sound like the apocalypse or the re-edition of the holocaust.

Abortion entices the worms to come out of the conservative woodwork in the shape of radical evangelists and the loony rightwing. Bernard Grech himself went overboard by attacking the credibility of Andrea Prudente, a private woman still in mourning for the loss she experienced, in a speech in parliament which sounded insensitive.

Furthermore, while the campaign against the amendment is supported by professional elites including some in the medical profession, their patronizing and absolutist tone may be off-putting to those who do not see this issue in black and white terms. After all, these same elites had also opposed IVF legislation and the morning after pill which were also depicted as harbingers of the coming apocalypse.

It may well be the case that by crying wolf so often, the pro-life lobby has damaged its own cause, losing their credibility even before the country starts discussing abortion on demand.

4. Labour’s carefully balanced act

Labour has managed to convince its own conservatives that abortion on demand is not presently on the table while still giving hope to its own liberal wing that wants it to go all the way.

On this issue Labour may be economical with the truth by giving the impression that the current amendment is a sheer formality to legitimise a practice which is already happening. The amendment could lead to conflicting interpretations on what constitutes “grave jeopardy to health.”  Yet this pales into insignificance when compared to the blatant falsehoods peddled by the PN and its allies in depicting the current reform as the introduction of abortion by stealth.

In reality, abortion will remain illegal even in cases of incest and rape and Malta will remain the only EU member state to ban abortion in these cases.

Moreover, Labour has also hinted that the final Bill will be further watered down by requiring the consent of more than one doctor before a termination is allowed.

Thanks to the PN’s intransigence, Labour’s timid tinkering with draconian abortion laws still offers some hope to liberals.

For in the current impasse, liberal voters, including those who are very critical of Labour’s track record on governance, may well put a peg on their nose to keep the ultra conservatives at bay.

The PN may not have realised that by pushing the abortion button hard, it is turning itself toxic to a strategic category of voters whose political allegiance cannot be taken for granted. In contrast, Labour’s own social conservatives tend to be a loyal bunch who won’t change allegiance on the basis of a single issue on which their party is still treading cautiously.

5. A home for liberals

Labour losses among pro-life voters are offset by PN losses among liberals. While for most voters abortion does not determine their voting choices, among those for whom this issue is a priority the game is no longer as one sided as it used to be.

It may very well be the case that Labour risks losing a small segment of its own voters who consider the current amendment a step too far, but such losses may be offset by PN losses among continentally-minded voters for whom abortion rights are part of the whole EU package.

In this sense the PN’s abysmal results among under 50-year-old voters speak volumes. Currently, only 13% of 36- to 50-year-olds and 18% of 16- to 35-year-olds will be voting PN. Among both categories 38% will not vote while 26% will vote Labour.

Even among the tertiary educated which also includes older and more conservative professional elites, 37% will not vote in contrast to 30% who will vote PN.