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Andreana Dibben: "In Malta, there is a sacral element to motherhood"

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By Valérie Gauriat
Andreana Dibben: "In Malta, there is a sacral element to motherhood"

Andreana Dibben is a social policy worker, author of a thesis on teenage mothers in Malta. She analyses the reasons for which the maltese society so strongly opposes abortion.


Malta is very small so elements of social control in terms of social stigma tent to be much more poignant than in bigger societies. In Malta everybody knows each other and anything that one does, the neighbour will get to know, the community will get to know.

It’s also an island that has been colonized for 7000 years. It’s a very recent nation state and this element of national identity feeds into the contemporary discourse as well.

There’s a fear of being invaded by values in contrast to our roman catholic identity

There is this element of fear, of being invaded and when we say being invaded it’s not just physical invasion that’s also featured in our country but it’s also this element of conceptual invasion. This idea that our thoughts, our lifestyle, our national identity, our behaviours will be eroded because of the influences of more liberal countries. In fact, when Malta joined the EU in 2004, this was the main fear: that now the EU will impose values in contrast to our roman catholic identity.
The roman catholic church through all our history has been the force that kept the Maltese people together and it is still a very strong force. We still have about 40 % of our population who go to church every sunday. This number has been decreasing by about 10 % every decade but it is still a very strong force. It’s one of the reasons why Malta is universally pro life.

The sacral element of motherhood

There is also a strong element, something that I talked about in my dissertation : motherhood in Malta is still seen as something that is very important. Motherhood is still central in a lot of women’s lives, it also takes a sort of even sacral element. If you look at the iconry in our country you see a lot of statues of the Holy Mary with the baby Jesus. So, it’s even in our religion… the importance of the motherhood is stronger here than in other countries. It’s part of the Mediterranean culture and children are considered as a blessing.
So, abortion is actually seen as a direct transgression, killing a foetus, a direct transgression to this blessing, to this life being allowed to be born.

So I would say that there is this social stigma touch to it, but most families tend to regard having a baby is something of a blessing and even the young mothers actually welcome it because they think motherhood is always something that should be received with happiness.

I think, of course, the main philosophical argument is to believe that a human person would begin from conception. That is something that we learn in Malta from childhood. Roman catholic religion, you can opt out of it, but it is taught in all schools. And even in for example PSD lessons and all of this kind of lessons, the messages, the instructions that are received are all pro-life. There isn’t a critical engagement with the subject in schools. So everyone grows up with this idea that human personhood begins from conception. And of course that feeds into the widespread belief that leads to the situation being as it is. It’s engrained in people’s psyche in a way.
And anything in contrast to that is seen like something abhorrent, like killing, equivalent to homicide.

In my experience, in my research, which was a qualitative study with a group of young mothers, some of them wanted to get pregnant and become mothers. But even for those for whom pregnancy was completely unplanned, the choice of abortion did not feature in their decision. All of them said either “it wouldn’t be something that I would have the guts to do” or “No ! That’s wrong, this is my responsibility, I did this so I will carry the responsibility. I will not take the easy way out”.

But of course, everybody knows as well that there are quite a number of people, of women who access abortion services in other countries. We only have statistics from the UK and it averages around 60 abortions per year. Which amounts to 1.5 percent of all deliveries in Malta. But there are of course other countries. Anyone can go to neighbouring countries, like Sicily in Italy, or other EU countries, where we don’t have statistics. And we know that people can, people do, travel abroad to carry out abortion.

There’s a lot of work to do in terms of reproductive rights

When we talk about reproductive rights, now from a feminist perspective, sometimes we think just about abortion but in reality it’s a whole spectrum of sexual and reproductive rights.
I would say that in Malta there is a lot of work to be done in this area. Starting from sex education. It’s been improving so there are sex education lessons, but comprehensive sex education as well the idea of women… because there is still a big double standard in terms of sexual behaviours between men and women.
From my studies, I found a lot of young mothers did not have sexual subjectivity, they did not know that they have agency as women; that they could say yes or no, that they could negociate contraceptive use. In fact most of them said “ I did not use contraceptives because my boyfriend did not want to use them”.

Contraceptives are not easily accessible. If you look at statistics, you will see that many young people have unprotected sex, they do not use contraceptives, it’s one of the lowest rate of the contraceptive use and not all the wide range of contraceptives are easily available.
Even long term contraceptives like the injections and other forms are not common. Even simply the contraceptive pill is not so commonly used by young women.

The emergency, the morning after pill is illegal as well because of it’s potential abortifacient nature.
So I would say, even before we even start discussing the idea of abortion becoming legalized, there are a lot of other things that need to be done in order to actually prevent any unwanted pregnancies. In terms of sexual education, sexual agency and use of contraceptives.
This is something that comes out both in my dissertation and another local research. That it’s an area where young people still don’t have enough knowledge, some claim they do but that does not translate into healthy sexual behaviours.
STDs are on the rise as well. Protections is something that is very very important. And even the gender differences when it comes to sexuality. Yes, I would say that gender inequality unfortunately in sexual relations and even sometimes differences in power between men and women in sexual relations leads to situations where young women, but even older women,are the ones who suffer the consequences.