Abortion and shifting sands

But the very fact that her health was put at risk because the law disallows abortion, laid bare the cruel situation women like Prudente are forced into

Abortion remains a politically taboo subject but within society there are signs of a gradual shift in public opinion.

This shift is driven by civil society groups that have shattered the taboo and are publicly and unashamedly advocating a pro-choice stand.

This is not to say that there is a pro-choice majority in the country. A MaltaToday survey in August found that the anti-abortion sentiment still runs high with 61.8% totally against. But it also pointed towards shifting attitudes, especially among the young.

The August survey showed that 27.8% of people are in favour of abortion in particular cases, while a further 8.3% agreed with abortion whatever the situation.

The survey did not ask people to define what ‘particular cases’ they found acceptable but a similar question asked in a more detailed survey on abortion in 2019 found that only 9.2% agreed with termination of pregnancy in the first three months in ‘particular circumstances’. The August findings represented a 19-point increase in three years.

More recently, another MaltaToday survey published last Sunday, found that an absolute majority of people believe that women, who have an abortion should not be sent to prison.

The findings showed that 53.3% of people, up from 46.9% last year, disagreed that women who terminate their pregnancy should be liable to a prison sentence of up to three years.

The results also showed that people are less lenient when it comes to health professionals.

Maltese law criminalises abortion without exception. A woman can be imprisoned for up to three years, while the medical practitioner carrying out the abortion can be jailed for up to four years and lose their warrant.

The law is draconian, making Malta the only country in the EU to have an outright ban on abortion.

This rigidity was severely tested at the start of summer when an American tourist on holiday in Malta, started miscarrying 16 weeks into her pregnancy.

Andrea Prudente was denied an abortion because the foetus still had a heartbeat despite doctors telling her the pregnancy was no longer viable.

Prudente received medical care to avoid the risk of sepsis developing as a result of her condition. She was eventually flown to Spain where her pregnancy was terminated.

But the very fact that her health was put at risk because the law disallows abortion, laid bare the cruel situation women like Prudente are forced into.

The Prudente case forced this country to discuss abortion rights within the context of a real woman whose health was put at risk, and not as a theoretical subject where ethical and human considerations remain aloof from the realities some women face.

In the wake of the Prudente case, Health Minister Chris Fearne ordered a review of Malta’s anti-abortion laws to ensure healthcare professionals are not put in a position where they cannot give women the best of care.

He said this review will not be a backdoor to abortion. It remains to be seen how the laws will be changed but hopefully, any proposal will open up a mature debate that puts women at the centre of it.