1980: When Mintoff told women abortion is their issue to fight for

In one landmark speech to the 1980 Labour general conference, Dom Mintoff strongly hinted at abortion as a right on which “only women know what’s best for them”. James Debono and Maya Dimitrijevic explore the ramifications of that first debate on abortion

It was a rare moment in Maltese history.

Addressing a rally of socialist women at Radio City in Hamrun – today the Labour headquarters – in May 1980, the indomitable patriarch of the Maltese Labour movement Dom Mintoff, who had confronted both crown and pulpit just a few years before, was exhorting Maltese women to step forward and take the lead on a subject which remains taboo to this day.

“Many came to me to tell me that a woman who kills the seed which had barely touched the soil is equivalent to killing a 64-year-old. I invited them to come here to tell this directly to you... say those things to the women, because these are your matters. We have had enough. These are your issues.”

Mintoff was not advocating for the introduction of abortion. His party was simply affirming the principle that women should not be jailed for committing one.

Still, his speech suggests that in that fleeting moment, Mintoff was entertaining the possibility that one day women would rally for abortion rights as other women in the continent had been doing. Mintoff indeed reminded his audience when abortion was de facto legalised in the UK in 1967, a change only thanks to the “many women who went in front of parliament making all sorts of noise... because they said ‘these are our issues’.”

In the same way Mintoff encouraged the women in front of him to take the lead. “You know what is best for you.”

Yet Mintoff’s exhortation for women to take the lead may also be seen an admission that his party would not go far as long as it was not pushed by its own women. For in a society where civic activism hardly existed, Mintoff’s exhortation on women to organise, simply bordered on wishful thinking.

On the brink of the 1980s depression

The context of the time was what it was. Ripples from the continent may have been felt even in Malta: abortion had been legalised in France just five years earlier; Italy had introduced its abortion law in 1978 in a law signed by health minister Tina Anselmi, a Christian Democrat and former partisan; a church-backed referendum to abrogate the law was shot down by a two-thirds majority in 1981; on the continent feminism was becoming a force to reckon with politicians like Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, who drafted the French abortion law, and Italian radical Emma Bonino, making waves.

Malta too was changing, but at a snail’s pace.

The economic infrastructure was changing. Thousands of working-class, young women formerly destined to a life as housewives were discovering a degree of financial independence working in factories. ‘Sodomy’ had been decriminalised in 1973, and civil marriage was introduced in 1975. The ban on contraception was also lifted.

But even divorce was a step too far for Labour, which feared reopening old wounds with the church following the bitter experience of the 1960s. And Malta was edging closer to its 1980s economic depression in a time of troubles ushered in by the disputed 1981 election – these circumstances eclipsed any other issue, including any talk on abortion which was left on the backburner. It was Labour’s battle to make faith-schools run by the Catholic archdiocese free for all which was to dominate the agenda of Mintoff’s designated successor, the Christian-socialist Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici.

Yet for a few months, Labour did encourage some sort of debate on abortion, perhaps in an act of brinkmanship, to scare conservative forces hell-bent on opposing any state interference in Catholic education, an issue already brewing before it came to the brink three years later. For this was also a context in which these ‘private’ schools were pivotal for the hegemony of the Maltese church on both professional elites and the nascent middle-class, which explains why for so long the educated Maltese middle-classes also shunned European civil liberties such as divorce and abortion.

Labour’s motion to depenalise abortion

Despite these limitations, Labour did take a significant step in approving a motion proposed by the party executive which timidly suggested a de facto depenalisation of abortion.

The motion called on the government to “resist the pressure of a few fanatics and proceed with the established norm of the previous 20 years through which despite the law imposing prison sentences for abortion, women driven to abort because of tragic circumstances are forgiven.”

While affirming the party’s stance against abortion, also by eliminating the root causes – like poverty –driving women to abort, the motion made it clear that “the socialist movement cannot impose prison on unfortunate women who had already suffered enough.”

While by the standards of the time the move was a bold one, it was also an admission that this was the furthest the party could go, probably also because not everyone in the party shared Mintoff’s continental mind-frame.

For even in his balancing act, Mintoff qualified the party’s anti-abortion stance by emphasising female autonomy. For example, he referred to the financial independence of women who found jobs in factories who were not forced to abort when abandoned by their partners. And unlike rabid anti-abortionists who often describe abortion as some sort of caprice, Mintoff insisted that any woman who resorts to an abortion is surely not going for “some picnic” (‘xalata’).

Court reports from the time clearly show that women were risking their life in back-street abortions while those assisting them faced prison. One case in point was a nine-month sentence inflicted on Italian-born Anna Cassar, found guilty of ‘attempted’ abortion on a young woman who had paid her Lm100 (in 1980, national minimum wage was below Lm60 a week) to carry out the procedure. After two failed interventions which caused the unnamed girl “enormous pain”, the girl ended up in hospital suffering from internal bleeding. Wires, syringes and medicines were found in a chest in Cassar’s home.

‘Worse than cats’ – how the PN referred to women who abort

Although Labour was far from introducing abortion, judging from the hysterical reactions of the Nationalist opposition, the motion did ruffle some feathers in the establishment.

An editorial on the PN’s organ In-Nazzjon Tagħna published in May 1980 went as far as saying “that there is no difference between the murder of a mature person and one in the womb” and attacked the whole notion that abortion is a women’s right, arguing that “Maltese women love their children and surely would not butcher their children,” and that “they will surely not behave worse than cats”.

Another editorial on In-Nazzjon Tagħna in June 1980 warned that the motion approved by Labour would “open the door for the erosion of societal values”.

And while recognising that not all cases of abortion are the same, the PN’s organ insisted that abortion is “always murder” even if some murders are “mitigated by circumstances”. While Mintoff exhorted women to take the lead and speak up, the PN daily reminded the Church of its “right and duty to teach what is right or wrong” while adding that “it could not imagine the Church remaining silent on such a subject.”

Unsurprisingly the debate was soon swamped by silly partisan broadsides, with some Labour exponents unable to resist a dig at the PN’s pro-western international affiliation. A young Leo Brincat went as far as chastising the PN for scaremongering on abortion in Malta, while congratulating Simone Veil upon her appointment as the first President of the European Parliament, describing the Holocaust survivor who authored the French abortion law as “a friend of the PN”.

And an editorial on the GWU daily l-Orizzont published in April accused the PN of inventing the lie that Labour was about to introduce abortion “in the same way as the Europeans of Cain (a derogatory term for western Europe) whose friendship they cherish, did.” Labour was right in pointing out the dissonance between the PN’s European orientation and its retrograde moral agenda, but in doing so it also paid homage to the worse aspect of Maltese exceptionalism. For unlike Spain, which ditched its conservatism with fascism by aligning itself with western democracies, Malta drifted into autarky.

An aborted debate?

For a brief period of time, there was some debate in the Labour-aligned media thanks to left-wing voices influenced by continental feminism.

One case in point was Lino Briguglio, who called on men even within the party to emancipate themselves from antiquated views which relegated women to mere appendages. ‘Forum’, a page on it-Torċa moderated by future Frans Ghirxi, included letters in favour of family planning centres, with Marian Farrugia from Msida arguing that “women should have the right to decide if and when to give birth” and that family planning centres should inform women on which contraceptive methods available are best suited for them. Joseph Cachia from Birgu went further, arguing that the laws against abortion go against freedom and in some cases threatened the lives of women: Cachia argued that while family planning clinics were important, this did not substitute the need for safe abortion in hospitals.

A call for more discussion on abortion was made by a younger Evarist Bartolo, later Labour MP and minister, who has lately expressed reservations on a proposed amendment allowing abortion in cases where the health and life of women is in great jeopardy. While suggesting that the introduction of abortion could be premature and had nothing to do with socialism, Bartolo did not mince his words in describing as “hysterical” the films screened in schools which depict abortion as bloody and capricious. Yet like Leo Brincat, Bartolo also took a dig at the PN’s friends in Europe such as Veil or the pro-choice Dutch and Swiss Christian-democrats.

Still, it was the experience of a woman from Valletta under the nom de plume “imġarrba” (the victim) which captures the spirit of the times – a society on the threshold of a long-gestated modernity in which working women are still prisoners of a culture based on honour and shame. It is the story of a woman who had a workplace affair with a man she later found out was married. “I did not want to taint the honour of my family... neither did I want to break up the family of the man... that is why I had an abortion.” And while referring to her abortion as a mistake, she praises Mintoff for saying that no woman should go to prison for such an act, and that criminalising women would further expose them to the culture of shame prevalent in Malta at the time.

43 years later, a radically changed country is still discussing abortion, and Labour is still cautiously testing the waters.