Reproductive rights are human rights – where does Malta stand? | Nathalie Psaila

In spite of Malta being a “proud UN member”, it consistently discriminates against women as sexual beings from very early on in their lives

File photo
File photo

Representatives from 58 United Nation (UN) member states gathered in Paris on 10th December 1948. The third session of the General Assembly was underway. The world had just gone through the horrors of the Second World War and its spirit was broken. 48 countries voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) being adopted by the General Assembly. The UDHR outlines those rights that belong to all men, women and children in the world. Other rights were identified along the years making up the 30 Articles present today.

The very first Article says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Those writing the declaration wanted to ascertain that all humans are treated with dignity. These rights are bestowed at birth. Article 3 protects all lives, while Article 25 declares that all humans have a right to adequate healthcare. All rights are inalienable and indivisible as stated in Article 30 which means that all are equal and we cannot cherry-pick which ones to adopt.

Malta became a member of the UN in December of the same year it achieved Independence. The page asserts that Maltese laws acknowledge and uphold human rights while keeping the “the UN at its core.” Yet, when it comes to reproductive and women’s rights we find that the reality in Malta couldn’t be further from this.

Women in Malta, some more than others, find it difficult to be free to make important decisions around their fertility and parenting choices. Women need to be free to choose when to be pregnant and when not to be, as well as be in a position to offer a safe, loving environment to any children they choose to have. These freedoms form the basis of the reproductive justice framework, which originate from the rights listed in the UDHR document.

The current state of affairs in Malta takes away women’s reproductive freedom. It starts with sketchy sexual health education in schools where the quality of the education received depends on the school and the openness of the teacher giving Personal and Social Development (PSD) lessons. Most boys and girls finish secondary education still believing myths like abstinence is the best approach to prevent pregnancy or that condoms feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, many parents seem unable to address the lacunae in their children’s sex education. Children in Malta are at the mercy of incorrect information spread among themselves, accidental discovery and unwanted consequences.

To add insult to injury, contraceptives are expensive. Young people may be reluctant to shell out €10-15 per month on the pill or condoms, or pay a lump sum of €300 to get fitted with an implant or an intrauterine system from their very often meagre allowances and earnings. Not to mention that some women’s expenses are under the watchful eyes of their partners, while other women, like refugees, simply cannot afford contraception.

Access to the morning-after pill (MAP) is still inadequate because it’s not available from all pharmacies. Time is of the essence when it comes to emergency contraception, and yet, the MAP is not on the government formulary list, making it unavailable at the 24/7 hospital pharmacy. None of the contraceptives are on the essential list of medicines, meaning that they can, and do, go out of stock. When this happens, women are obliged to change brands of contraceptive pill, exposing them to the risk of potentially serious complications every time they start a new brand.

Sometimes things go wrong and a wanted pregnancy is diagnosed with fatal abnormalities, maybe a pregnant woman develops health problems or even a young girl becomes pregnant as a result of abuse. This is when abortion care is healthcare. In 2018, the Human Rights Committee elaborated further on the right to life. It said: “restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy.” (Human Rights Committee, General Comment 36 (2018) on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the right to life, para. 8.)

Women who are at a stage in their lives where they are unable to provide suitable parenting or a wholesome environment for their children but become pregnant, also need abortions. Reasons for requiring an abortion are as varied as the number of women who need an abortion. They might have inadequate housing, some are financially unstable, while others know that they won’t be emotionally available to their child. It is the right of these women not to become mothers. Nevertheless, Maltese law makes criminals out of women who attempt an abortion, let alone offer them support and empower them to take decisions about their own bodies.

All human beings are bestowed the same rights, but some children in Malta are given a better sexual health education than others because there isn’t a common curriculum that must be followed in all schools. Again, some women and girls have the means to protect themselves from pregnancy more than others. Other women and girls are supported enough socially and financially to acquire abortions if they need them, unlike others. Our government needs to provide the structures necessary to remove these disparities and make sure that all women and girls, including trans people, are able to access services equally.

In spite of Malta being a “proud UN member”, it consistently discriminates against women as sexual beings from very early on in their lives. Women and girls are set up to fail in having control over their bodies and lives thanks to the appalling lack of reproductive resources offered in this country. I encourage anyone who requires information or help with achieving their wish to be autonomous in their reproductive choices to contact the non-judgemental and prochoice FPAS (Family Planning Advisory Service) helpline on or 27780037.