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MALTATODAY 19 February 2023

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8 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 19 FEBRUARY 2023 NEWS IT was a rare moment in Mal- tese history. Addressing a rally of social- ist 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 con- fronted both crown and pulpit just a few years before, was ex- horting 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 abor- tion. 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 wom- en 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 en- couraged 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 soci- ety 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 in- troduced its abortion law in 1978 in a law signed by health minister Tina Anselmi, a Christian Democrat and for- mer partisan; a church-backed referendum to abrogate the law was shot down by a two-thirds majority in 1981; on the conti- nent feminism was becoming a force to reckon with politicians like Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, who drafted the French abortion law, and Italian rad- ical 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 independ- ence working in factories. 'Sod- omy' 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 Kar- menu Mifsud Bonnici. Yet for a few months, Labour did encourage some sort of de- bate on abortion, perhaps in an act of brinkmanship, to scare conservative forces hell-bent on opposing any state interfer- ence 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 nas- cent middle-class, which ex- plains why for so long the ed- ucated Maltese middle-classes also shunned European civil liberties such as divorce and abortion. Labour's motion to depenalise abortion Despite these limitations, La- bour did take a significant step in approving a motion pro- posed by the party executive which timidly suggested a de facto depenalisation of abor- tion. The motion called on the gov- ernment 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 for- given." 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 move- ment 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 par- ty could go, probably also be- cause 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 em- phasising female autonomy. For example, he referred to the financial independence of 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 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 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')

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