[ANALYSIS] Abortion: Is the taboo broken? (Or is the pro-choice movement another bubble?)

Despite this inherent risk, here are five achievements made by the nascent pro-choice movements in what remains an uphill struggle

It was only in March that a pro-choice lobby was formed in Malta, and seven months on, a crowd of some 100 people truly ‘broke the taboo’ by attending Malta’s first ever pro-choice rally, held last week.

Surveys in Malta still show an overwhelming and stable majority against the legal availability of abortion in all circumstances, except very marginally in cases where the mother’s life in danger. Both major parties remain against its introduction.

After taking the bold step to bring out the debate on abortion and reproductive rights truly in the open and marshalled by a feminist lobby, the major risk facing the pro-choice movement is that of becoming another self-referential bubble that is galvanised by international sympathy but engaged in an entertaining, albeit sterile sideshow with Malta’s loony right.

Despite this inherent risk, here are five achievements made by the nascent pro-choice movements in what remains an uphill struggle.

Academic Andrea Dibben, took centre-stage as she convened Malta’s first pro-choice rally, together with lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic
Academic Andrea Dibben, took centre-stage as she convened Malta’s first pro-choice rally, together with lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic

1. No longer afraid to speak up in public

Up until a few years ago anyone favouring a liberalisation of abortion laws was depicted as a baby-killer. For a long time, nobody spoke about the issue except for fringe personalities or eccentrics like Emy Bezzina, who hosted foreigners with a mission like Dutch medic Rebecca Gomperts. Even liberals recognised the subject as being a no-go area, reacting only when faced with an attempt to entrench the ban on abortion in the Constitution piloted by former deputy prime minister Tonio Borg in 2006.

The prevailing argument among liberals was that there was very little point in pushing an issue which triggered an overwhelming rejection, especially in a context when more winnable battles like divorce and gay rights were being fought. Liberals found themselves making the argument that divorce and gay rights have nothing to do with abortion.

This has clearly changed. Galvanised by the secularisation of social mores in the past decade, liberals are more confident in tackling the abortion issue. Surely pro-choice views are still shunned by the overwhelming majority of people, but activists are no longer ostracised for expressing their views. The sheer formation of a pro-choice movement with identifiable and respectable faces has served as an encouragement for others to commit themselves.

But the movement still misses one key element vital for its success: women who have actually passed through the experience of an abortion are still reluctant to take the stage. During last Saturday’s rally personal testimonies from women who had been denied abortions had to be narrated by activists. One Maltese woman whose story was read out, said she was refused a termination despite having a non-viable pregnancy. “They forced me to become a walking grave,” she said. “Look me in the eye and call me selfish… People like you do not want to hear our voices.”

Yet such stories can only be effective in changing opinions when told by those who had a first-hand experience. Still, the first hurdle, that of being able to speak out about this issue in public and congregate with like minded people, has been surpassed.

MEP candidate Mina Tolu, was first within the Green Party to call for a sane debate on abortion. But their stance prompted the resignation of party stalwart Arnold Cassola
MEP candidate Mina Tolu, was first within the Green Party to call for a sane debate on abortion. But their stance prompted the resignation of party stalwart Arnold Cassola

2. They have brought the ultra-conservatives out of the woodwork

The experience in other countries, as well as Malta’s own divorce referendum experience, has shown that debates on moral issues tend to bring the most conservative elements out of the woodwork, to the detriment of the causes they champion.

So it was no surprise that the formation of a pro-choice movement has provoked a strong and expected reaction among ultra-conservative and right-wing groups who have now upstaged the Catholic church in spearheading the campaign against abortion.

The organisation of a counter-rally last Saturday attracted the usual suspects – former X Factor contestant and gay conversion witness Matthew Grech, the conservative activist Ivan Grech Mintoff, evangelical pastor Gordon John Manché, and the right-wing Catholics from the Pro Malta Christiana grouping, which over the past two years have led rosary rallies on the eve of gay pride marches. The rally was also addressed by Catholic priest Fr David Muscat, a Mosta cleric who has associated himself with the far-right Imperium Europa and its activists, first to celebrate Nazi apologist Norman Lowell’s birthday and more recently being interviewed on the party’s YouTube channel. Even members of the far-right Moviment Patriotti Maltin attended.

The increased militancy of the pro-life camp and its association with far-right views carries with it a big risk for the anti-abortion lobby. The growing extremism of pro-life campaigners may backfire as pro-choice arguments start appearing more mainstream and rational, especially when expressed by professionals like medical practitioners from Doctors for Choice.

Yet there is also another side to this argument. The confrontation between the two groups may well give legitimacy to the far-right, which on this issue is still in synch with majority views. In such Trumpian times, the far-right thrives in confrontation between so-called educated ‘elites’ and folksy demagogues who claim to represent “the salt of the earth”.

The greatest obstacle for pro-choice arguments remain deeply ingrained in cultural values, including the Maltese perception of motherhood as the destiny of all women and a code of honour-and-shame which still shuns women in full control of their sexuality. On the social media one of the most common ways of shooting down female activists carrying placards against state intrusion in their reproductive life is to ask them to refrain from having sex “if they are unwilling to face the consequences”.

The organisation of a counter-rally last week attracted the usual suspects, including evangelical preacher Gordon John Manché
The organisation of a counter-rally last week attracted the usual suspects, including evangelical preacher Gordon John Manché

3. The first cracks have emerged in the political consensus against abortion

Up till a few years ago abortion was still a taboo even within the most progressive political party in Malta: the Greens were often shot down for their international affiliations with a European political family openly in favour of abortion. MEP candidate Mina Tolu, who attended last Saturday’s rally, was the first to break this taboo by calling for a debate on abortion before the MEP elections. Tolu’s stance triggered a split which saw Alternattiva Demokratika losing votes to Arnold Cassola, who stood as an independent; while the Democratic Party’s Cami Appelgren still managed over 3,000 votes despite being attacked by anti-abortionists for being pro-choice.

And while Labour remains opposed to abortion, its MEP candidates distanced themselves from the anti-abortion lobby by shunning a questionnaire seeking to commit them against abortion. Even this week, commissioner-designate Helena Dalli described herself as a committed feminist who would deliver fully on the UN goals for sexual and reproductive health and rights – which includes abortion.

Even the PN’s attempt to turn abortion into a main issue during the MEP elections backfired, as people recoiled at what was widely seen as an attempt to exploit an issue which had no bearing on European elections.

Still, despite clear signs that Labour is more tolerant to debate on this issue and that it harbours within it a silent pro-choice current, the 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 the time being.

Pro life counter rally in Valletta
Pro life counter rally in Valletta

4. Women are taking centre-stage in the debate

Voice for Choice has put women at the centre of the debate, so 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 lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic and academic Andrea Dibben have taken a prominent role. Although it is also to be expected that opposition to abortion will 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 anti-abortion movement would endanger itself further if it becomes an outlet for angry white male conservatives lashing out at independent pro-choice women. Yet contrary to public opinion in other countries, polls show that Maltese women are more inclined to oppose abortion than men. This may well have to do with how girls are still socialised to believe that motherhood is a destiny which has to be embraced in any circumstance.

In March of this year the first ever Maltese pro-choice coalition, launched a bid to legalise abortion in Malta
In March of this year the first ever Maltese pro-choice coalition, launched a bid to legalise abortion in Malta

5. They are in it for the long haul

It is clear that the pro-choice movement has staying power and has not fizzled out as happened to previous attempts to stir debate on this issue. It has not only withstood the conservative backlash but can now even command the support of a consistent crowd of supporters. At this stage pro-choice views remain a minority, which still has to contrast popular mores related to motherhood, gender roles and morality. This means that they are here for the long haul in full knowledge that changing entrenched mentalities on this issue remains a difficult task.

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