Malta’s Abortion Track Record Could Hurt Its Progressive Reputation

Malta’s Abortion Track Record Could Hurt Its Progressive Reputation
Activists hold up banners in both English and Maltese reading, “I decide”, “Abortion is a woman’s right”, and “Abortion is health care, not a crime”, Valletta, Malta, June 15, 2022 (AP photo by Kevin Schembri Orland).
This spring, Malta was crowned the top European country for LGBTQ rights and freedoms by the annual ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Index for the seventh year in a row. The Mediterranean island country didn’t just win the top spot. It dominated the rankings, with a score of 92 percent—nearly 20 points above its nearest competitor, Denmark. This recognition did not come to Malta via a high-priced PR campaign or effort to “brand” Malta as the LGBTQ dream destination. Rather, it is the result of good policymaking that ensures rights for LGBTQ people on the three islands that make up the country. However, given that Malta also has some of the most strict abortion laws in Europe, what looks like a glowing public diplomacy success story also highlights the ways in which policy inconsistency can muddle a country’s image and the work they’ve put into building it. Malta’s reputation for defending LGBTQ rights began with the election in 2014 of its former president, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, of the Labor Party, who, in addition to being only the second female president in the country’s history, was also the youngest—at 55 years old—when she took office. Preca stressed the importance of diversity and multiculturalism, and her minister for European affairs and equality, Helen Dali, oversaw the country’s first LGBTQ Strategy & Action Plan from 2015-2016. That was followed by a second plan from 2017-2022, both of which have brought about some big advances. This includes, most notably, the parliament’s unanimous decision on Dec. 5, 2016, to pass the Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Bill, making the Mediterranean island the first European country to criminalize so-called conversion therapy. In addition to banning conversion therapy, the law also guarantees that gender identification and expression cannot be classified as a disease, disorder, illness or shortcoming. That same year, Malta claimed the top spot on ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Index for the first time, and since then it has become a fixture on rankings for LGBTQ travelers who want to see the world, but also to do so safely. This is particularly important when taking into account how essential tourism is for Malta’s economy. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, 14.9 percent of the country’s total employment came from the travel sector, which accounted for 12.8 percent of GDP. In general, there is much for travelers to like about Malta, as a natural destination for sun, beautiful beaches, historical landmarks and great food. But its appeal to LGBTQ travelers is also extremely lucrative, especially as travel restrictions lift and countries the world over are vying to recover their share of the tourism market. After all, the competition for LGBTQ tourism is fierce for a reason. In a report from titled, “PINK Diplomacy: Embracing diversity and equality in foreign policy,” Keith Azzopardi, a Maltese diplomat, estimated that what he called the “Pink economy” represents around $300 billion per year globally. The Group LGBT Capital estimates that the global annual spending power of LGBT consumers was $3.9 trillion in 2019. The same group’s estimates for LGBTQ tourism numbers didn’t include Malta, but the figures for countries like Greece and Portugal was around 1 percent of their GDP for 2019. Azzopardia believes that through the combination of its LGBTQ-friendly reputation and its diverse economy, Malta could become a “natural hub” for the LGBTQ business community, noting that “cultural soft power” can help not only to promote Malta’s identity, “but also to serve as an igniting force of change towards empowering minorities and advocating sustainable development.”

Niche diplomacy can be a very good strategy. But the tension between Malta’s LGBTQ-friendly policies and its abortion laws leaves its national “brand” of tolerance vulnerable.

Malta’s embrace of LGBTQ people might seem surprising, however, given that the officially Catholic country only legalized divorce in 2011 and still has the most restrictive abortion ban in Europe. This is what makes reputation-building tricky. A country can’t be everything to everyone, and niche diplomacy can be a very good strategy. But the tension between Malta’s LGBTQ-friendly policies and its abortion laws leaves its national “brand” of tolerance vulnerable. That was illustrated by the harrowing experience of U.S. citizen Andrea Prudente, who traveled to Malta in late June with her partner Jay Weeldreyer for a “babymoon” vacation before they became parents. Despite Prudente being only four months pregnant, her water broke. But doctors at the hospital where she was brought refused to abort the no-longer viable fetus while there was still a heartbeat, putting Prudente’s life at risk for sepsis. The couple’s insurance policy finally provided an air ambulance to fly them to the Spanish island of Mallorca, where Prudente received the urgent medical attention that she needed, but not before she made public appeals on Facebook and her story was picked up in the international press. This raises the question: Can a country build a positive reputation for protecting the well-being of some people, while maintaining regressive laws that can put other people’s lives in danger? The answer is complicated by the fact that country reputations in general aren’t particularly fluid. In fact, they tend to remain quite fixed and based on stereotypes, because most people aren’t very well-informed about the world beyond where they come from. And unlike the United States, whose reversal on abortion rights last month made frontpage headlines around the world that were impossible to ignore, Malta’s LGBTQ-friendly policies have never gotten that much media exposure and remain largely unknown outside of the LGBTQ community. The same was true of its absolute ban on abortion, until Prudente’s story made headlines last month. Most countries are lucky if foreign publics know them well enough to merit any attention in the media. So, it’s extremely difficult to have much of an image or reputation to begin with, let alone craft it somehow. While one negative story won’t definitively ruin Malta’s reputation, the country’s absolute ban on abortion, even when the woman’s life is in danger, complicates the otherwise progressive LGBTQ reputation it has worked so hard to gain through policy. It’s hard to exaggerate the difficulty of crafting a reputation abroad, and policy change along with the long-term efforts that Malta has made in terms of attracting LGBTQ visitors have the best chance of doing so. But the incongruence of progressive LGBTQ policy sitting side by side with regressive abortion policy risks turning Malta’s efforts into uphill battle.

Alana Moceri is an international relations analyst, writer and professor at the IE School of Global and Public Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @alanamoceri.

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