As the world looks at Poland, women in Malta have it worse

Dr Christopher Barbara: Despite all the negative attention it has attracted, Poland’s abortion law is still more humane than that of fellow EU state Malta

On the 22nd October, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that abortions due to fetal malformation will no longer be allowed. This sparked outrage across the continent, and the move was described as a violation of human rights by Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

Abortion was already highly restricted in Poland but this additional ban has made a difficult situation worse. The ones impacted by the ban on abortion in cases of fetal malformation are not women with unwanted pregnancies, who would have terminated the pregnancy in the first few weeks of pregnancy regardless of the illegality of on-demand abortions. The ones impacted are in fact couples with very much wanted pregnancies who receive the devastating news that their offspring will have a severe malformation and may not survive more than a few hours after birth.

As already happens in Malta, these Polish couples will now be forced to bring the fetus to term, only to then watch their baby struggle and die.

Giving birth to a malformed fetus, especially if the head is deformed, poses additional risks to the woman in labour and may put her life at risk. The least a decent society could offer such people is the option to humanely terminate the pregnancy.

But the reality is that, even after this ban, Poland’s abortion law is still more humane than Malta’s.

Poland still allows abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is at risk. Malta’s abortion law has no such exceptions, and women who become pregnant as a result of sexual crime have no option but to give birth.

Malta is the only EU state with a ban on abortion as a result of rape – a ban that in effect assists the abuser in inflicting maximum damage and disruption on their victim’s lives.

We would also like to point out that Poland’s law does not criminalise women who terminate their own pregnancy. Penalties are only levied against those who help women get abortions or doctors who perform the abortion. Malta’s law prescribes women who have an abortion a jail term of three years.

So yes, despite all the negative attention it has attracted, Poland’s abortion law is still more humane than that of fellow EU state Malta. We therefore make no apology for calling out the hypocrisy of our prime minister when he described Malta as a “champion of civil rights,” while he maintains the most repressive reproductive laws and policies in Europe.

What we are seeing in Poland is of no surprise. It is part of a coordinated assault on women’s rights and minorities by a populist Polish government which is locked in several disputes with the European Commission. Civil rights are being reversed in the name of national identity and traditionalism, to the detriment of so many Polish citizens and residents.

On the other hand, it is surprising that Malta continues to defend its complete ban on abortion, which is so incongruous with the norms in Europe, while at the same time pretending to be a “champion of civil rights.”

The progress Malta has made in LGBT rights and equality is undisputed and worthy of praise, but if our government truly believes in civil rights and personal freedoms it cannot continue denying women the right to bodily autonomy. Until women are given the right to control their lives and futures, there can be no true gender equality in our country.

We know change to Malta’s abortion laws will happen eventually. For the sake of women and couples who are suffering, we can only hope it does not take too long.

Dr Christopher Barbara is a member of Doctors for Choice Malta

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