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Deborah Schembri: 'Give love another chance'

Yes movement chairman Deborah Schembri tells Christian Peregin conservative divorce legislation is better than nothing.

Have you considered a career in politics or has this campaign been too tough on you?

I don’t think the campaign was tough because in court I’m used to debating and researching. A career in politics? I always keep my options open, that’s why I’m for divorce... I think the toughest moment in the campaign was when I realised how the Church was going to treat me.

You were stopped from practising in the Church tribunal.

I would have been very naive had I thought they wouldn’t try.

Many people feel cheated by the referendum question which claims “adequate maintenance will be guaranteed” and “children will be cared for”. You say it is the “right” to maintenance that is being guaranteed. So why doesn’t it say that? And how realistic is it to say children will be cared for in every situation?

To give you your due, I think it would be more accurate to have “the right to maintenance” written down. But that’s what is meant. It couldn’t have meant anything else. Because it is the right you protect in a law.

What about the children?

It is important to have safeguards for children. Today with separation we have certain safeguards. But the divorce proposal lists a number of things that would put children in a better position.

It would put children who are born out of wedlock on a par, even legally, with children within wedlock. Their position would be much better than it is today. It won’t affect children of parents living a normal happy family life.

In cases where a father dies without a will, his first children are today eligible to a larger share of inheritance than children born from another relationship out of wedlock. Divorce could change this. Are you expecting children from the first marriage to vote for divorce if it could affect their financial position in future?

Children from the first marriage and the second marriage are all children of the same person. We should not discriminate because some people who are unjustly enriching themselves from other people’s shares would be worse off.

If we want to promote a culture of equality and social justice, we should go for something which treats people in the same position (being children of someone) alike.

Some women say they’ve been abandoned by their husband for someone else and they do not want to legitimise their husband’s new relationship because in doing so they would lose status and dignity. Are they being unreasonable?

They’re not being unreasonable. They’re being human.

But are they right?

It is human nature when a husband wrongs you, to want to take revenge. They need time to heal and then they can think more clearly. If you are picking up a burning stone to try to throw at someone, you will burn yourself, but you might not hit him. Revenge has something of a momentary pleasure. However, when they calm down and realise that life goes on, these women may realise they want to find someone else themselves.

But many of them would have spent their lives helping their husbands progress in their careers, bringing up the children, not taking care of themselves so much.

Definitely.

So it’s difficult to expect them to vote in favour of divorce.

We’re not saying their situation is something we can all easily understand. We cannot all easily understand it because you need to be in that predicament. But at the end of the day we’re talking about a declaration that something has finished. So we need to concentrate on whether that marriage has effectively finished.

But in doing so we change the definition of marriage, where we start to accept second, and possibly third and fourth marriages. And we’re don’t just allow relationships to take place but encourage a family environment. Aren’t we promoting or legitimising behaviour which today we consider inappropriate?

Today we are promoting behaviour that is not to be encouraged. We are promoting cohabitation without an alternative. We are pushing people, who have gone through a bad marriage and have now found another partner, into cohabitation which, according to studies, does not last as long as marriage. So we are pushing people into something less responsible than marriage. They are still having new families. They are still getting into relationships...

...But without the law’s support...

...Which isn’t right. Because without the support of the law you still do what you are doing. The difference is that once you leave, you leave behind an unmarried woman or a man with young children and with no rights to maintenance. So you have the satisfaction of having a family, without the responsibilities.

Do you think divorce can be a solution for some of the problems our country is facing or is it against the common good?

In the common good concept, everyone is important. So you see the plethora of problems: a lot of marriages working and some that are not. Will divorce affect the stable marriages? No. But it will solve a personal problem for those who find themselves in a bad marriage.

We’re not saying cohabitation is going to decrease because divorce will be available. Cohabitation is going up everywhere across the globe. We’re saying it might not go up at the same rate if divorce were introduced. There is a very logical answer to this. People today are forced to cohabit and tomorrow would have a choice to remarry.

A study by the University’s family studies centre says only 26 per cent of separated people would consider getting remarried if divorce was introduced.

When people start talking in terms of ‘there will be too few to matter’, it hurts me as a family lawyer, let alone the people who are suffering. The study also makes a distinction between people who have children and those who don’t, as well as the age difference.

You say we shouldn’t force people to cohabit if they want to marry. What about gay people?

I think there are groups of people who would need, want and wish for rights. We need to take their rights into consideration but not in relation to other rights.

So one step at a time?

Not one step at a time. It’s not ‘today this and tomorrow that’. You have to see the circumstances. Which rights are going to be affected? What are we talking about?

It has been said divorce would lead to abortion. I totally disagree. We need to ask: with abortion are we talking about the same things? Gay marriages and heterosexual marriages may seem very much alike. But they may not be. There may be shades of different things.

So they should have another form of marriage?

I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t. We should treat them on their own merits. This will come up sooner or later.

You say this is the most conservative divorce law in the world. I believe in Chile, which introduced divorce in 2004, you can only get it in cases of infidelity, abandonment or violence. I would say that makes it the most conservative law in the world.

No, no, no. Being the most conservative doesn’t have anything to do with the grounds of divorce.

So, what then: the time in which you can get it?

Time is of the essence. But you also need to have exhausted the reconciliation process.

Let’s say this is the most conservative law in the world. Some people ask: why should we wait four years? What if there are couples who agree to divorce and do not have any children or property to settle? What do you tell people who feel this law is not liberal enough?

I tell them I think you’re right, it is not liberal enough. It is a little conservative. But let us prefer to err on the side of caution. If you don’t vote for it, you will not have any divorce law, not even after four years.

So then how do you respond to the claim that this conservative law is going to be diluted over the years?

It may be. But slippery slope arguments of this nature make for bad arguments.

They’re legitimate though. It has happened.

Legitimate to a certain extent. All pieces of legislation all over the world are capable of being changed.

So why do we vote for them? You have to see what is in front of you. Even if divorce does not pass, maybe in five years’ time Parliament will enact legislation without the four years and the reconciliation process.

Who is funding your campaign?

Poor people working, like me, on a voluntary basis.

Do you deny the Labour Party is giving you money?

It’s not a question of denying: they’re not giving us money. If they were I would appreciate it, but they’re not, unfortunately.

Watch excerpts of both interviews on www.timesofmalta.com

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