Tuesday, 17 May 2011

MaltaToday: Evolution of the body-snatchers

17.5.2011 by Matthew Vella

Zwieg bla Divorzju will become a 'family coalition' to further entrench religion into the public sphere. And it's already happening.

There's a fissure in Maltese society that is happening as we speak, and there is no symbolic panacea like EU membership to heal it. Not even divorce can 'solve it' – which is why people who don't agree with divorce are realising that this referendum campaign has exposed the clash between civil rights and the religious intolerance that is repeating itself again.

The 1969 Good Friday peace brokered between Dom Mintoff and Archbishop Michael Gonzi put an end to the Catholic Church's violence against Labourites 'condemned' by mortal sin – like Guze Ellul Mercer, a former deputy Prime Minister of Malta who was buried in the unconsecrated mizbla after having been excommunicated by Archbishop Gonzi.

Mintoff may have tempered some of the Church's assumed powers when he introduced civil annulments (the limited form of divorce that already exists in Malta). But his government was not interested in civil liberties as much as building Malta's industrial base, full employment and self-sufficiency. Its mixed results are debatable. By the 1980s, Mintoff's workerism was perverted into state-mandated, partisan thuggery.

The Nationalists came to power in 1987 with a promise of liberty – liberty from Mintoffian autarky and thuggery, and liberty to spend one's money freely. But in 2011, the Gonzi dynasty (sublimely illustrated by Tanti Burlò here) is perverting that liberty with state-mandated, partisan thought-control.

I won't go into the appropriation of God by the Attorney General in his appeal against the courts' liberation of Alex Vella Gera from obscenity charges. But censorship is one form of thought-control and this government is doing nothing to bring the obscenity laws into the 21st century.

What we are witnessing now is the emergence of a socially conservative lobby, latching on to a socially conservative government, to conserve the power that the Catholic Church has devolved to it.

It is not the unfashionable and kitsch Opus Dei, although one of its adherents, former MP Dr Michael Axiak, laid a foundation for what we are about to witness. It will be called a 'coalition for the family', and its roots are already planted, and are diametrically opposed to the European civil society many of us are aspiring to.

It started in bits and pieces. Axiak is the chairman of the Bioethics Consultative Committee, which falls under the OPM. The committee was the first to discuss the future framework for an IVF law, but it fundamentally opposed embryo freezing; Axiak himself had said he didn't want to see IVF offered free of charge by the State to unmarried couples "because the government would be destroying the institution of marriage. We have to conserve the family."

Then in 2010, a new parliamentary committee was created to forge the IVF law, led by MP Jean-Pierre Farrugia. In his submissions, Axiak reiterated that IVF should only be for married couples, and that no embryo freezing or sperm donation should be allowed. Sonia Camilleri, the former Commissioner of Children who had already given her views to Axiak's 2005 hearings, was of the same opinion.

Jean-Pierre Farrugia's committee instead heeded the word of science and called for embryo freezing to reduce mortality caused to the woman by hormone stimulating therapy. Sensible science had triumphed over ideology.

And yet, out of the woodwork crawled pro-lifers Gift Of Life, entering into a row with Farrugia over his declaration that he would kick-start fiscal incentives for couples to adopt frozen embryos, using the money from the salary raise for MPs.

Because abortion happens to be a non-issue, GOL's Paul Vincenti is now pushing the line that there is a link between divorce and abortion, an old chestnut that has been liberally used by Nationalist MPs like Edwin Vassallo in the parliamentary debate on the divorce referendum.

And why? Because Vincenti, who was once championed by deputy prime minister Tonio Borg by proposing the Constitutional entrenchment of abortion, still bears the scars of being publicly scorned by former Opposition leader Alfred Sant's death-knell to his entrenchment campaign.

Let's be clear about the socially conservative agenda, because it is suddenly verging on the control and repression of the human body and mind. Kate Gonzi tells women on Mother's Day of her dislike of premarital sex – because as sexual beings women may be devalued but as wives they are hallowed; the Camilleris are not supporters of IVF for women who cannot bear children, and Andre renounces divorce as a 'solution' for physically abused woman (why wouldn't the wanton destruction of the female body be good reason enough for her to severe the marital bond?); and Anna Vella, the head of the Cana movement, sees divorce as a 'contagion' that spreads from the mind to the body (a size 10… I shudder to think that the frontiers of sexual desire should stop at a size 10).

So when this family coalition will take form, which sort of family will it uphold? Will it uphold the interests of non-Catholic families? The interests of unmarried or single parents? The interests of infertile couples who want to create a family? The interests of same-sex couples who are already raising children in Malta?

My gut-feeling is that the family coalition will be none of this. When Joanne Cassar was refused the right to marry her male partner after having undergone gender reassignment therapy, the courts had partly relied on Dr Michael Axiak's affidavit that "after gender reassignment therapy, a person will have remained of the same sex as before the operation."

But it was only thanks to the European Court of Human Rights ruling in Goodwin vs UK that Malta's Constitutional Court had to recognise Joanne Cassar's right to marry her male partner. The good doctor may be a scientist. But we are lovers of the pursuit of happiness.

How wrong were those who believed that the PN harboured a liberal heartland, which is why we latched on to the hope of European Union membership in 2003. Now it seems our European aspirations are being subsumed by the prejudices of the mighty that run the country.

The problem is that even their own agenda is confused by the electoral swell they are trying to manoeuvre right now. How does Lawrence Gonzi respond to the cultural divide unfolding before him? He promises to regularise cohabition (I agree of course, but why at the expense of divorce?). I wonder what the family coalition will say about this new legal dimension of institutionalised premarital sex, bigamous spouses and IVF treatment for unmarried couples...

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on MaltaToday's website.]

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