The abortion debate or non-debate in Malta

, by Kimberly Zammit

The abortion debate or non-debate in Malta
Thousands of people march to protest a government plan to limit abortions in Madrid on February 8, 2014. CC - 2014 Reuters

When it comes to the right of abortion in Europe, the most covered European country is generally Ireland, especially since the Irish government recently announced that a referendum on abortion is to be held in the country in May.

However, abortion is also illegal in another EU member state, with even stricter rules than in Ireland: “the small conservative island” of Malta.

Our Maltese author Kimberly Zammit analyzes today how Maltese society and politics have made abortion a “non-debate issue”, and wonders whether or not there is hope for the referendum in Ireland to have a “domino effect” in Malta.

The Irish Government announced on the 31st of January 2018 that a referendum on abortion is to be held in Ireland at the end of May. This news seems to have had a minor domino effect on another island and EU member state where, just like in Ireland, abortion is illegal. This island is none other than the small conservative island of Malta.

Upon the announcement coming from the Irish Government, a small debate which was mainly taking place on social media, was resurrected about the abortion legal situation in Malta.

Malta is one the few countries in the world with the strictest approach to abortion especially as Malta restricts abortion in all circumstances; even when a woman’s life is at risk, something which Ireland allows. The only other three countries in the world where abortion law is as strict as Malta are in Latin America – the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

History

In a small island with a population of around 436,947, the abortion debate is almost inexistent. The question of the legalization of abortion is not a regular feature in Maltese newspapers and television channels, nor is it a regular topic of debate among Members of Parliament of the House of Representatives or at Ministerial level. Nor does it feature often in the discourse of the two main political parties of the country. The debate does however occasionally come up among students and student organizations in Malta, among columnists and writers and on social media. Unfortunately, even though the latter are dedicated to the cause, much of these efforts are in vain as abortion is accepted by Maltese as an issue of non-debate.

Non-debate issues

There are many reasons behind why abortion is seen as an issue of non-debate in Malta. The main reason behind this would, in my opinion, have something to do with the country’s conservative and deep Catholic values, as well as the immense presence of the Church in such matters. As in every debate, morals and ethics have to be considered, and as Malta is a Catholic country where the majority of the population claims to be Catholic, the Church would undoubtedly be part of the debate. Abortion is seen as the killing of an innocent human being which in turn goes against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Another reason would be as Maltese Prime Minister recently stated, “My government neither has the political mandate to open a debate on access to abortion, nor the support of the public opinion on this matter.” The Prime Minister’s remarks once again echoes the general feeling on the island. As abortion is seen as a very sensitive issue, people in general look at it as a ’non-debate’ and hence the current government does not feel that it has the ’political mandate’ to even open the debate.

The Prime Minister’s comments come as a response to Nils Muižnieks’, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, recent comments on abortion in Malta. Mr. Muižnieks visited Malta last November and then followed-up by a recommendation letter on the abortion issue which he sent to the Prime Minister.

To conclude

Things have been changing in Malta, many would argue that they are changing for the better. Divorce was legalized in 2011 and the current Labour government has also put LGBTQI rights on its agenda as a priority. In Malta, yes; in the same conservative country, same-sex couples have been able to enter into a civil partnership since 2014 and last July 2017 the parliament voted by 66-1 the new marriage legislation to legalize gay marriage as well as the banning of gendered words in the legislation.

In light of these bold changes, one cannot help but wonder whether the question of abortion will be addressed any time soon especially with the announcement of the referendum in Ireland. The question here would be; will there be a domino effect? Or will Malta remain on the list as one of the last countries with the strictest abortion laws? As abortion seems to be a ’non-debate’, I would say that only time will tell.

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