Abortion is a human right, MEPs say | Isabel Stabile, Christopher Barbara

The European Parliament has unequivocally stated that abortion is a right, a fundamental human right, putting paid the ridiculous assertions of anti-choice groups in Malta

Croatian MEP Predrag Matic (S&D)
Croatian MEP Predrag Matic (S&D)

On June 24, 2021, history was made. The European Parliament adopted a resolution confirming that women in Malta, as in the rest of the EU, must have access to safe, evidence-based and compassionate care when it comes to sexual and reproductive health, and that includes abortion. The Matić Report was adopted by a majority of 378 in favour including that of Cyrus Engerer, one of Malta’s own MEPs.

The erroneous belief that the issue falls outside of EU competence has finally been put to rest. And so it should, because there is no question whatsoever that sexual and reproductive health and rights are fundamental to health, economic development, gender equality and well-being of humanity.

Restrictive abortion laws such as in Malta put women’s lives at risk because such laws force women to either travel and therefore delay the abortion, or access illegal abortion care which may be unsafe. It also criminalises women and the doctors who look after them. Young people, women and marginalised groups in Malta all deserve better, and this report is a good starting point to address this injustice.

What exactly does the Matić report say? This report urges member states to protect and enhance sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and calls upon them remove all barriers to the full range of high-quality, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services to end inequalities in the EU. In other words, a woman in Malta should not have less access to sexual and reproductive healthcare than one in, say, Sweden.

The report also calls out those member states that still have highly restrictive laws prohibiting abortion in all cases (such as Malta) or except in strictly defined circumstances (such as Poland), leading to women having to seek clandestine abortions or carry their pregnancy to term against their will, which Matić called “a violation of their human rights”.

By passing this report, the European Parliament has unequivocally stated that abortion is a right, a fundamental human right. Yes, this is a resolution, not a law so it is not legally binding, but it puts paid the ridiculous assertions of anti-choice groups in Malta that claim, through clenched teeth I would imagine, that there is no legal basis for abortion as a human right. This is false, and the European Parliament has now joined a growing list of international institutions that consider abortion a human right.

The report goes even further, calling the total ban on abortion care (such as in Malta) a form of gender-based violence. This is because, as it currently stands, women and girls in Malta cannot have an abortion even if they have been raped. The report urges all member states to ensure universal access to safe and legal abortion, to guarantee that abortion upon request is legal in early pregnancy, as well as beyond if the pregnant person’s health is in danger.

The Matić report takes a holistic view of sexual and reproductive health and is not just about abortion. The report is based on science and draws upon scientific evidence to recommend comprehensive sexual education (and not just abstinence, as is primarily taught in Maltese schools), access to medical services for trans and intersex persons, as well as IVF for all those who need it.

The report also urges states to ensure universal access to a range of high-quality and modern contraceptive methods, as well as counselling and information on contraception - another serious gap in the Maltese health care system. All of this catered for in the Matić report, and yet three Maltese MEPs decided to vote against the whole report because it mentions abortion.

To argue, as did one of our MEPs who voted against this report, that she believes in science when it comes to COVID vaccines, but then ignores all the scientific proof that legal abortion safeguards women and girls’ health, is frankly ludicrous. Similarly ludicrous is how another one of our MEPs told us he has embarked on a project to ensure the Maltese can access medicines as easily as people in the rest of the EU, but then proceeded to vote against the Matić report, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most abortions nowadays happen by the woman taking medicines in her own home.

It is sad that a group of anti-choice doctors in Malta actively petitioned MEPs to vote against the Matić report. How logical is that? How can we live in a country where contraception is not free, the morning after pill is not easily available despite being legal, and yet this group of medical professionals argue for abortion to remain a criminal offense?

Perhaps they should also petition the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which accredits local OBGYN trainees, to drop its stance in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion, or they should petition the World Health Organisation to stop considering abortion as an essential healthcare service. I highly doubt they would be successful.

Make no mistake about it, despite our restrictive laws probably more than 400 hundred women each year in Malta take a risk by having self-administered abortion pills at home. Why do they do this? There are so many reasons, and many of them are clearly illustrated in the stories submitted to break the taboo (www.breakthetaboo.mt), an online platform that publishes personal abortion stories from women in Malta. One would expect the Maltese MEPs who voted against the report to provide feasible and acceptable alternative solutions to these women in Malta who resort to illegal abortion, but alas they have provided none.

Well done to the author of the report Predrag Fred Matić and well done to all the MEPs from across Europe who voted in favour, including our own Cyrus Engerer. History was made this week, and the adoption of this report should be a veritable turning point that will see sexual and reproductive rights upheld and respected in all corners of the EU.