[ANALYSIS] After divorce, can abortion make it to the Maltese to-do list?

Six factors that could change or entrench Maltese public opinion on abortion as a pro-choice coalition gets its campaign underway

A pro-choice coalition, Voice for Choice, includes seven non-profit organisations that aim to remove the stigma of abortion
A pro-choice coalition, Voice for Choice, includes seven non-profit organisations that aim to remove the stigma of abortion

Will the launch of pro-choice coalition Voice For Choice send abortion on the same trajectory as divorce as happened in Ireland 23 years after its own divorce referendum? Only are there overriding cultural factors that make abortion no-go for the Maltese? James Debono explores six factors that could change or entrench Maltese public opinion 

1. The debate itself may change public opinion 

Surveys presently show an overwhelming majority against abortion. Yet back in 1995 according to the Maltese Values Study only 16% of respondents in Malta were favourable to the introduction of divorce, 56.5% totally against, whereas 27.5% thought this depended on the circumstances. 

Still, surveys indicate that opposition to abortion is more pronounced, with majorities of over 66% opposing abortion in all circumstances except when the mother’s life is in danger. One has to consider that so far there has been no debate on the abortion, with the pro-choice camp associated with fringe candidates or movements. 

The Irish experience has shown how in the space of two decades mainstream public opinion shifted towards pro-choice positions. Back in 1983 a majority of 67% of Irish voters supported a constitutional ban on abortion. The ban was repealed by 66% in a referendum last year. Subsequently Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who is a member of the European People’s Party, ensured the approval of the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Act of 2018, through which abortion is permitted during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.  

One main factor which changed opinions in Ireland was how the way arguments were presented by the respective campaigns. While the pro-life camp based its arguments on the attribution of personhood to embryos, the pro-choice campaign was based on real life and painful dilemmas faced by ordinary women. It was these hidden stories which ultimately changed public opinion in countries like Ireland. 

2. Anti-abortion as a mark of Catholic identity  

Opposition to abortion may be a stronger identity marker than Catholicism itself and it may be more ingrained than opposition to divorce ever was. A large segment of the Maltese population may have grown to define themselves from the rest of the world by holding their ground on abortion. A romanticised idea of motherhood is also strong, something which explains why feminism is weaker in Malta than in other European countries. 

Exceptionalism may also thrive in a world full of uncertainties and constant change, with the pro-life stance, becoming one of the fixed identity markers. This explains why opposition to abortion in Malta is not limited to Catholics. In fact one expects that while the church shuns confrontation on this issue as its moral authority is shaken by the international clerical abuse scandals, the gap may be filled by more extreme pro-lifers, who are more influenced by US-style evangelism which attributes personhood not just to the embryo but also to cells. 

The Maltese pro-life cause has already lost its battle against embryo freezing in IVF. The increased militancy of the pro-life camp carries with it a big risk. Their mind-frame may be alien to the Maltese, whose opposition to abortion is also qualified by a tolerance and compassion to women who see k treatment abroad. In fact nobody clamours for the enforcement of abortion laws, which themselves carry a different penalty for murder than for abortion. The growing extremism of pro-life campaigners, which may even infringe on doctors’ discretion in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, may backfire as pro-choice arguments start appearing more mainstream and rational.  

3.  Maltese  born abroad  will bring a different perspective to the debate  

Maltese demographics are changing and modern Malta also includes people born in countries where termination of pregnancy is seen as a personal issue, and where the procedure is provided in public hospitals. 

This is not limited to immigrants from EU countries but also those hailing from Russia, China, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey, which also have more liberal abortion laws than Malta. This segment of the population will increasingly see the ban on abortion as the imposition of one particular philosophical viewpoint. It is inevitable that after living here for years, these people will not only demand greater integration, but are bound to become more active in civil society and debates on social and political issues. 

Another possibly darker side of this cosmopolitan reality is the presence of disenfranchised and poorer foreigners, including women with unwanted pregnancies, who may not afford to travel to another country to have an abortion. The risk of more back room abortions being performed in Malta could in itself serve as a wake up call on the need to regulate abortion locally. Still immigration is not a one-way traffic and it may also include with it people hailing from countries with more ingrained conservative outlooks, which may prop the ranks of more militant pro-life movements.  

4. Foreign abortions remain a safety valve which effectively  delay the introduction of  safe and  legal abortions in Malta

So far Malta has been largely spared from the horrors of backstreet abortions because although abortion is illegal, it is still available for Maltese women who can afford to travel to other European countries like the UK where abortions are legally and safely performed. This may also explain why the debate on abortion has taken so long to take off.

Those mostly affected by the ban, namely poorer women who cannot afford to travel abroad, are too politically disenfranchised to campaign for legal changes. Ironically the availability of abortion services abroad may well be the greatest obstacle to introducing abortion locally, for it may be easier to help women in need of an abortion to procure one abroad – than to campaign to get the law changed to permit it in Malta.  

Yet faced by the prospect of NGOs like the British Abortion Support Network helping poorer Maltese women seeking abortions in other countries, pro-life groups may be tempted to start questioning the right of Maltese women to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancy. Such an approach would be a step too far in a society which has reached its own equilibrium based on exporting the problem to other countries. Attempts to restrict freedom of movement of women seeking abortion abroad played a big role in shifting opinions on this issue in a more liberal direction. 

5. Women are at the centre of the pro-choice debate 

Voice for Choice has put women at the centre of the debate. The attitude taken by women, particularly political candidates and MPs, will be fundamental.  

The most significant aspect in the evolution of the abortion debate in Malta is that women like Lara Dimitrijevic and Andrea Dibben have taken a prominent role. Although it is also to be expected that opposition to abortion will also come from women who see abortion as an affront to motherhood, women are also more likely to feel empathy towards the plight of other women. The pro-life movement would endanger itself further if it becomes an outlet for angry white male conservatives lashing out at independent pro-choice women. The experience in other countries as well as the local divorce experience has shown that debates on moral issues tend to bring out the most conservative elements out of the woodwork, to the detriment of the causes they champion.  

The increase of female MPs through the introduction of quotas will further feminise the debate, with the increased likelihood of Malta seeing the election of its first crop of pro-choice female MPs.  

  6. Labour’s future attitude towards the issue will be crucial 

It was the changes in the civil liberties arena under the Muscat-led Labour government, which emboldened pro-choice activists to speak up now. For in several issues like gay rights, Labour not only enacted legal change but also changed popular attitudes.  

Still this does not mean there is any chance that abortion is introduced any time soon. The Labour Party has made it clear that abortion is not part of its current ‘progressive’ agenda. The elevation of the staunchly pro-life George Vella to the presidency has sent a strong message to socially conservative voters that Labour has no intention of rocking the boat on abortion, at least for time being. 

By calling for “a respectful debate” on abortion, Green Party MEP candidate Mina Tolu has broken a taboo that politicians should not even debate this issue. It may only be a matter of time for some candidates in Labour to start expressing themselves on this issue in a more liberal way. But this also comes at a risk, that of increasing the Nationalist Party’s temptation of appropriating the pro-life issue as a marker of its identity, thus paving the way for a protracted US-style culture war that can only ultimately be resolved in a referendum pitting two diametrically opposed world-views.

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