Maltese performers’ abortion rights play makes waves in London

Blanket Ban highlights the double-insularity caused on an island under lockdown during the COVID pandemic, preventing women already confined to an island from leaving after its borders are shuttered

Davinia Hamilton (left) and Marta Vella
Davinia Hamilton (left) and Marta Vella

Maltese performers Marta Vella and Davinia Hamilton have won the accolades of the British press with a four-star review of their show on Malta’s blanket ban on abortion rights at the Southwark Playhouse, in London.

After captivating public attention at the Edinburgh fringe last year, The Guardian accorded the duo a four-star review for their play Blanket Ban, which uses interviews with medical professionals and people who personally navigated illegal abortions in Malta.

The play highlights the double-insularity caused on an island under lockdown during the COVID pandemic, preventing women already confined to an island from leaving after its borders are shuttered.

“The duo’s use of these stories – some of which were shared for the first time, a testament to the grace with which they work – is selective and moving, engaging and gentle. They are both incredibly funny performers, easy to laugh with and easy to like, making the sober, tragic notes land with an even firmer thud to your heart,” writes reviewer Kate Wyver.

Vella and Hamilton’s individual stories are woven into their own accounts of childhood in Malta and snippets of history, using humour and respect for their interviewees, to warn that abortion rights can never be taken for granted.

Abortion is illegal in Malta, making it the only EU member state with an outright ban. Parliament is currently discussing the introduction of two limited exceptions that would allow doctors to terminate a pregnancy if the woman’s life or health is in danger.

Women who seek an abortion have to travel abroad to get a surgical abortion, or procure abortive pills online and self-medicate with the threat of criminal action hanging on their head.

Abortion in Malta

More than half of women in Malta who completed a medical abortion after buying pills online already had children, research shows.

The findings show that 53% of the 658 women who had a medical abortion between 2017 and 2021, had children and a quarter had two or more children.

The research focussed on anonymised data provided by just one online telemedicine provider, Women on Web. It was carried out by Andrea Dibben, Isabel Stabile, Rebecca Gomperts and James Kohout and published on BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health, an international journal.

The number of women who had a medical abortion could be higher since there are other reputable online telemedicine providers not included in the study.

During the five-year period, 1,090 pregnant people requested at-home medical abortion from Women on Web but around 40% cancelled because they chose to continue the pregnancy, had a miscarriage or decided to travel overseas for an abortion.

The study shows that the pills Mifepristone and misoprostol were shipped to 658 women. More than 90% reached out to Women on Web at less than seven weeks’ gestation.

The analysis found that among those completing a medical abortion, 63% did not use contraception, and in 30% of cases there was contraception failure.

Just over half (53.3%) were aged between 25 and 34, nearly a quarter (22%) were women 35 years and over, and another quarter (24.3%) were under 25.

The main reason given for having a medical abortion was ‘not being able to have a child at this point in their life’ and ‘no money to raise a child, 69% and 34% respectively.

“Contrary to the prevailing stereotype that most women who access abortion are young and promiscuous, most women seeking abortion through telemedicine in Malta were in their late 20s or early 30s and were already mothers, and their main reason for accessing abortion was that they felt their family was complete, or they could not cope with another child,” the researchers said.