The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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Malta’s abortion reform

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 6 July 2023, 12:11 Last update: about 11 months ago

Last week Malta carried out legal changes through which abortion is now permitted if a woman’s life is in danger. Parliament supported this unanimously, and the President duly approved. Hence, even though Malta still has the strictest anti-abortion legislation in the European Union, it no longer has a total ban on abortion.

There are contrasting interpretations, including from different disciplines, on this legal reform. In the field of politics and social movements, the Labour Government said that history had been made. At the same time, it seems that, some Labour MPs were not pleased with the law – a watered-down version of what was proposed months earlier by the same government. Along the same lines, some progressive and feminist voices within the Pro-Choice movement felt betrayed by the new law. On the other hand, others hailing from the Pro-Life movement, most notably conservatives and the Nationalist Party, welcomed Labour’s change of heart and applauded themselves for their lobbying efforts.

Apparently, President George Vella’s declared opposition to abortion also played an important role on the matter. However, rumour has it that once his term expires, Labour will have less hindrance to introduce a more progressive version of the law.  

In this article, my aim is not to say which version of the law is better or worse. Rather, I wish to focus on the strategies of the pro-life and pro-choice movements, which, I believe played quite decisive roles in the matter. My brief analysis is informed by the sociology of social movements, most notably the ‘Contentious Politics’ approach.

When Government originally introduced the more progressive reforms, certain windows of political opportunity had been open. Malta was moving from one reform to another in the field of civil rights, however resulting in a paradoxical situation where, within the EU, it had the most progressive laws on LGBTIQ rights, and the most conservative laws on abortion. At the same time, value surveys showed that there was a growing minority of people who declared a pro-choice position on abortion, at least in certain instances. Possibly, there might also have been pressure from within EU quarters on Labour to carry out legal reforms in this area.

In the meantime, the Prudente controversy presented a policy-dilemma which needed legislation, itself providing a mobilizing opportunity for the pro-choice movement. Government proceeded to propose reforms which were deemed as moderate but acceptable by the pro-choice movement, but which were deemed as actually allowing abortion by the pro-life movement. Basically, the bone of contention circulated around the elasticity of terminology concerning the health of the mother.

Consequently, both the pro-choice and pro-life movements upped their respective antes. The pro-life movement had a major political party (PN) and the Catholic Church which were clearly on its side, as well as various elements within Labour who were declared pro-lifers, not to mention the President of Malta. The pro-life movement was active both in the media as well as within various social networks which might not necessarily make the news headlines, but which are deeply ingrained in community life. The massive turnout for its protest on 4 December 2022 was not a coincidence. I strongly believe that similar operational and communication methods to those used by major political parties were in place to mobilize the grassroots. Social capital was in reproduction.

On the other hand, the pro-choice movement was not clearly supported by any major political party or any major politician, for although Labour originally introduced a more progressive version of the law, there was a lack of clarity on its interpretation as well as internal opposition to the introduction of abortion. The Pro-Choice movement did manage to build strong social networks in the media sphere, with friendly coverage particularly from certain media houses. The Pro-Choice movement also believed that it was on the right side of history in line with historic trends in Europe, where, from this perspective, Malta is seen as a laggard on abortion rights. This movement comprised alliances between (smaller) organisations, but I have no reason to believe that it could mobilize resources the way that the pro-Life movement did. It may look good to have politicians, activists and NGOs from the continent to publicly support your cause, but a lot of political mobilization takes place at grassroots level in people’s everyday social networks. In short, the Pro-Choice movement’s activism was not as engrained in local communities as was that of the Pro-Life movement.

If one looks at the way how the issue was framed, there were instances of valuable arguments and less valuable slogans on both sides, and all sorts of scenarios and imaginaries were being depicted. The pro-Life movement used a discourse which is more in synch with the aspirations and beliefs of a large majority of the population. Here, paradoxically, what comes to mind is the way how various LGBTIQ movements in different countries, including Malta, managed to successfully frame their discourse as one of wishing to participate in the ‘community’ of family-life, without taking anything away from others, not to mention that, in Malta, it had the support of a major political party, Labour, in the 2013 general election. In the field of abortion, however, the pro-Choice movement’s ‘individualist’ position was much more difficult to articulate, and this was reflected quite clearly in value surveys carried out following Labour’s original proposals on the matter.

Hence, in conclusion, I am proposing that when analysing the political and social movement dimensions of such controversial issues, one needs to dig deeper than one’s personal opinions,  beliefs, and affiliations, to which we are all entitled, after all. One needs to give due importance to effective strategies as well as the construction of discourse which has democratic resonance. At the same time, no context or situation is cast in stone.

 Dr Michael Briguglio is a Sociologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Malta


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