The very idea of abortion is inseparable from the way we relate to each other as individuals. It invokes a sequence of deep-rooted associations: the embryo symbolises a child; a child symbolises a family; a family symbolises a home; a home symbolises the domestic; the domestic symbolises relatedness.
Collage: Isles of the Left
What are the national discussions on sex work, LGBTQIA+ issues and legislation such as civil union and divorce saying about Maltese culture? Recently, a new theme—abortion—has joined this progressive list.
A few weeks ago, I went to watch the play, De-terminated which sparked an intense debate outside Malta’s national centre for creativity, Spazju Kreattiv amongst friends. Despite the fact that the play script revolved around the lives of those who are the forefront of society, that is middle-class and elitist women and men, it filled the stark void that surrounds the theme of abortion. It started a much needed debate, even if among small circle of friends and acquaintances.
Why is abortion still a taboo in Malta? How does the ‘abortion taboo’ relate to other social and cultural perspectives here?
The meaning of things, whether an object or idea, can never be understood in isolation. Experiences, concepts and practices need to be taken into consideration as part of a wider set of interconnected relationships. Thus, when we begin a debate on abortion, we must explore it from various perspectives—the legal, social, economic, political and cultural. We must neither forget the body and body politics which automatically invoke debates around gender, feminism and women’s rights.
The Unsaid: Abortion as a Meaningful Category
Categories, despite their limitations, help people navigate their experience and understand their environment. Therefore, when talking about abortion, one must first untangle what meaning it conjures and explore the different strands embedded in such a category. It must also be understood in its cultural context. For example, strong family relations and kinship networks are still the basis of Maltese society. Yet, we are currently witnessing that social norms are changing and these shifts are undoubtedly affecting people’s family networks and behaviour on many levels—from law to ideas about the family. Social change further destabilizes all that is taken for granted by making it explicit and subject to disagreement.
When approaching abortion from various angles, one starts to realise that there are a set of hidden connections and meanings attached to it. One of them is relatedness.
An issue as complex as abortion deserves a slow thinking process. It deserves social policy that is based on in-depth research that will cater for local concerns and fears. When approaching abortion from various angles, one starts to realise that there are a set of hidden connections and meanings attached to it. One of them is relatedness.
Relatedness is fundamentally meaningful because it shapes our perceptions of the world and ourselves. In Malta, the significance of relatedness is even more profound because Maltese society is partly built upon connections between family and friends. The very idea of abortion is therefore inseparable from the way we relate to each other as individuals. Thus, in order for society to reach a collective decision, whatever that may be, the debate must address these real fears and provide a platform where people can safely discuss this change at a legal and experiential level.
The very idea of abortion is inseparable from the way we relate to each other as individuals.
Since legalising abortion would directly affect people’s lives and impact the core of social and intimate relations, politicians must come up with policies that are culturally-sensitive and that cater for new practices. Malta is undergoing demographic shifts, at a familial level and through migration, and it is essential to consider the changes prior to enacting new laws. A failure in policymaking is that more often than not, the carriage (i.e. the law) is put before the horse (i.e. the people). In that case, change happens at a legal level but societal acceptance lags behind by at least a decade—and this happens when policy is not informed by research and fails to be culturally sensitive as it does not address the concerns and fears of people.
The other side of the abortion debate, which lurks in the shades of our minds and is never addressed, is the sense of disconnect, nostalgia and fear that abortion elicits in the collective unconscious.
The absence or loss of a child is an extremely sensitive topic. Although legal definitions on when an embryo becomes a child differ across time and countries, ultimately it still symbolises life. Therefore, ‘abortion’ invokes a sequence of deep-rooted associations: the embryo symbolises a child; a child symbolises a family; a family symbolises a home; a home symbolises the domestic; the domestic symbolises relatedness. (This thinking process can be criticised for its linear and heteronormative trajectory. On another occasion we could queer and challenge these traditional perceptions of life course trajectory and discuss the concept of queer home-making.)
Despite the conservative traditionalist notion of these associations, I’d like to highlight that these deep-rooted connections are still embedded in our collective unconscious. Therefore, when people strongly object to abortion, it might not be because they solely disagree with it, but because—whether realising this consciously or not—they understand that they will have to adapt to change, to new practices, new rules and new behaviour. The change threatens their familiar world and their status quo.
The further development of abortion status in Malta is inseparable from assigning new meanings to the concept of family.
By contextualising abortion in a larger social and cultural context, we can grasp that legal changes inevitably follow the cultural transformations. The further development of abortion status in Malta is inseparable from assigning new meanings to the concept of family; therefore, the change is only possible if the function of ‘The Family’ is no longer what we think it to be today.
Once we begin to view abortion as an ideological category and pay due respect to it as a moral statement, then we can begin to engage with more complex matters related to it. Could it be that the resistance to the broader debates on abortion is caused by a fear of disconnect and weakening social ties? Could it be an opposition to the rapid social and demographic changes?
Labeling all those who take an opposing stance on abortion as outdated is not helpful since this view obscures legitimate concerns, fears and connections which shape people’s ways of relating to the surrounding world.
The Female Body, Biology and Nurturance?
We have established that ‘abortion’ as a concept is tightly knit to those of ‘the family’, ‘law’, ‘morality’ and ‘the state’. But what about the woman and her body?
The male bias states that the woman’s body is ‘biologically’ predetermined to carry the bond between nurturance and care.
More often than not, women are endowed by the onerous responsibility of the family and childcare. It is because traditionally the female body is seen as being closer to nature—the perception which itself stems from a bias of male theorists. This male bias states that the woman’s body is ‘biologically’ predetermined to carry the bond between nurturance and care. However, disciplines like anthropology and sociology, including queer and feminist studies challenge these ideas and argue that such a bond is not natural but highly influenced by cultural rules and norms.
The discourse of ‘naturalised’ biological determination that defines gender norms and sorts people into binary gender categories is problematic for many reasons. This gendered bias of male/female (or nature/nurture) is based on a gender-blind model of human rights and arises out of the early conception of ‘the rights of man’ in the 17th century. The original conception of international human rights in the 20th century was formulated for societies based on nuclear family relationships, where men were seen as family heads. This traditionalist conception of women’s role as responsible for the domestic sphere, nurturance and care for children was thus cast in law. Although societies have changed since then, the legal system has not yet resolved paradoxes related to rights of women and also other minorities.
It is the perception and perspective upon which law and policy are designed that also need to be questioned and queered.
It is the perception and perspective upon which law and policy are designed that also need to be questioned and queered. Embedded in law, there is a real gendered male bias, which ought to be challenged for women to be freed from guilt and to gain decisive power over their own bodies.
The Abortion Taboo as a Collective Coping Mechanism?
To conclude, why is abortion still a taboo? Statistics show that there are simultaneous demographic trends occurring globally, and Malta is no different. Family sizes have shrunk; the population is ageing; divorce is common which means that we now have to think of two or more households forming part of the kinship network; and modern childcare can eat up most of an adult’s income even with a two income-family. These demographic, economic and political changes shed light on additional reasons prompting the Maltese to resist the legalisation of abortion.
The legal change must necessarily be followed up by providing a substitute for waning familial ties, through establishing a framework to support all the individuals who may need it.
Maltese society has experienced rapid social changes: we are transitioning from an informal society to a bureaucratic one.
People need time to adapt. Reluctance to embrace change is not necessarily negative and we do have ample sagacious sayings about the relationship between time and decision-making: ‘Iż-żmien hu l-akbar għalliem’ (time is the greatest teacher) and ‘qis mitt darba u aqta’ darba’ (measure 100 times and cut once). These literally mean that one should take all the time one needs to make a decision because time is our greatest teacher. Therefore, the ‘abortion taboo’ might after all be a meaningful reaction, a social defence mechanism which needs to be contextualised in a set of intimate, economic and political relations.
Changes never suit everybody. And if all laws criminalising abortion were dropped tomorrow, it would affect the kinship relations that are still part and parcel of Maltese society today. Since these networks also act as a private safety net and support system, their dissolution could contribute to the social insecurity that many individuals are facing due to the increasing cost of living and precariousness. Thus, the legal change must necessarily be followed up by providing a substitute for waning familial ties, through establishing a framework to support all the individuals who may need it.