Malta Says 'We Do' to Legalizing Divorce

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Ben Borg Cardona / AFP / Getty Images

Maltese MPs, Evarist Bartolo, right, and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, left, celebrate the passing of the referendum to legalize divorce in Malta at a polling station in the capital Valetta on May 29, 2011

"Welcome to the 21st century!" That was how one Facebook user responded to the news that Malta, the only country in the E.U. that still prohibits divorce, had voted to allow married couples to officially split. In a country reported to be 95% Catholic, the results of the May 28 referendum took many on both sides of the issue by surprise. But for supporters, the vote is a sign that the island nation, located 55 miles (90 km) south of Sicily, is ready to modernize not merely its social laws but also its democracy.

Divorce has been banned in Malta since the country's independence in 1964. In the run-up to Saturday's referendum — the first on the issue — both sides engaged in intense, sometimes bitter, campaigning. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi fiercely opposed the measure, stating on one occasion, "If we truly want to safeguard the family, I won't bring divorce to Malta." The church was even more fervent in its opposition, with clergy using their Sunday sermons to preach against the proposal.

Perhaps as a result of those tactics, some polls conducted prior to the referendum predicted that the measure would fail by a slight margin. But when the results were released on Sunday, after a 75% turnout, the measure passed 53% to 46%. "In Malta, where most elections are decided by 1 or 2%, that's a huge margin," says Martin Scicluna, director of the Valletta-based Today Public Policy Institute. "I was really surprised," says Alison Bezzina, a writer based on the city of Birkirkara who supports the bill. "On Saturday we saw all these images [on TV] of nuns taking people from retirement homes to the polls so they could vote. I was sure that was going to tilt the vote against legalization."

Until now, Maltese in failed marriages have had limited options. They can get divorced in another country and have the rupture registered later in Malta; they can file for a legal separation that, if granted, will nonetheless prevent them from remarrying. Or they can petition a church tribunal to annul the marriage.

That was the option that Eric, a 37-year-old working in the entertainment industry, chose. Eric (who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his ex-wife's family) and his wife sought an annulment just two years into a marriage that he says had been misguided from the beginning. After five years and the testimony of dozens of friends, family members, psychiatrists and clergymen, the tribunal, in the end, ruled against the petition, finding that the marriage was valid at the time it was performed, and therefore could not be annulled. "They basically told me, 'No one stuck a gun to your head and made you get married,'" Eric says. "So they wouldn't dissolve it."

During that time, Eric and his wife had, like many separated Maltese couples, simply begun living apart, and each eventually met a new partner. "All the lack of divorce does in Malta is prevents people from legitimizing their relationships," he says.

But opponents of legalization argue that the prohibition has important social benefits. "We believe that permitting divorce will lead to an increase in the breakdown in marriages," says Angelo Micallef, spokesman for the antidivorce organization Le B'Rispett Lejn il-Gejjieni (No, With Respect to the Future). "And it will also increase poverty, leading to greater dependence of broken families on the state."

For Micallef, the vote does not reflect a change in Malta's attitude toward the church. "The people who voted in favor of divorce are still Catholic," he says. "They just believe the issue should be decided on the basis of civil law, rather than religion." But even that, says Scicluna of the Today Public Policy Institute, represents a distinct transformation. "This signals a recalibration of church-state relations," he says. "It'll allow a secular, parliamentary democracy to do its thing, without intervention from the church. For the first time since independence in 1964, Maltese democracy has come of age."

The issue must now go before parliament for approval, which is widely expected. "This is not the result that I wished for," said Prime Minister Gonzi in a statement on Sunday. "But the will of the people has to be respected and parliament should enact a law for the introduction of divorce."

That's good news for Eric. Work eventually took both him and his now ex-wife to England, where they were able to divorce. He has since remarried, and was thrilled to hear of the referendum results. "It's too late for me, but I'm delighted for all those who would otherwise find themselves in a similar situation," he says. "Everyone should have the right to be happy."

That sentiment appears to be spreading. On Monday, the parliament of the Philippines — one of two nations in the world where divorce is still banned (the other is the Vatican) — announced that it would begin its own debates on whether or not to let unhappy couples go their own way.