Not just Poland: Dalli called to reflect on Malta abortion ban

Helena Dalli called to also focus on Malta’s abortion ban, over debate on Poland’s new restrictive abortion law

European Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli
European Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli

European Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli has been called by pro choice activists not to ignore her home country’s abortion ban, after giving a speech on sexual and reproductive health and rights in Poland.

Dalli gave her speech in the European Parliament on 9 February, in a debate on the proposed changes in Poland that will ban up to 98% of abortions. Malta is the only other EU country to have an outright ban on abortion.

Speaking to MaltaToday, a spokesperson for the commissioner said the speech delivered in the European Parliament was explicitly focused on Poland’s situation. “The debate, as well as its focus, was decided by the European Parliament,” they said.

But Dalli’s reluctance to speak out on the issue of abortion in Malta has been criticised by Women Health and More (Wham), a website focusing on the lives of women living on the Maltese islands.

Author and activist Emily Galea commended Dalli’s speech on Poland in response to the country’s recent enforcement of a proposed Bill that bars women with non-viable pregnancies from seeking terminations. However, Galea highlighted that Dalli’s “own home country” Malta was omitted despite having more restrictive laws.

“While this speech is indeed both commendable and truthful, one cannot help but notice the complete omission of the Commissioner’s home country, Malta, which is the last remaining member of the European Union with a blanket ban on abortion,” Galea wrote.

Recently, Poland put into place a proposed bill that bans up to 98% of abortions – with the country having some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

Dalli’s speech focussed on the importance of sexual health and the right to receive high quality, reproductive health care.

However, Malta currently has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Unlike in Poland, Maltese women cannot even seek a safe abortion in rape or incest cases.

“Unlike Poland, in Malta, even when the pregnant person's life is at risk, one cannot obtain an abortion, legally. In fact, there is no circumstance under which a person can legally seek an abortion in Malta,” Galea pointed out. She added that women in Malta continue to order medical abortion pills online and struggle to seek surgical abortions overseas.

Over 200 women reached out to British charity Abortion Support Network since it expanded its services to Malta in 2019. “We helped 75 people in 2019 and 126 people in 2020. The increase was likely due to an increased awareness of ASN and the help we provide and the added pressure Covid-19 placed on people in Malta with unintended or non-viable pregnancies,” founder Mara Clarke said.

Malta’s first Family Planning Advisory Service (FPAS), launched in August 2020, also saw 203 contact them in their first six months to seek out advice on reproductive options.

Still, at a European level there is continued radio silence with Dalli’s spokesperson saying the Commission’s position on sexual and reproductive health and rights remains unchanged, from a legal perspective. “Legislation in this area is up to the Member States. Strong women’s rights are an asset and an achievement the whole of Europe must be proud of. We should push forward, not backwards,” the spokesperson said.

Last year, Dalli reaffirmed her “commitment to ensuring women and girls have access to health and medical care, including sexual reproductive rights.” However, she later stated that she would respect member states in their choice of abortion legislation.

At a European level, Malta’s newest Labour MEP, Cyrus Engerer, has been the only politician to break ranks with traditional abdications surrounding support for reproductive rights. Back in 2020, Engerer supported a resolution condemning the new restrictive abortion laws in Poland. He was the only Maltese MEP to vote for the resolution.

More recently, Nationalist MEPs David Case and Robert Metsola did not vote on a resolution which assesses the progress made in women’s rights over the past 25 years. The reason for this, they told this newspaper, was because they said that as always, they voted against any amendments calling for abortion to be mandated in member states.

The Maltese public itself remains unconvinced. A survey by MaltaToday back in 2019 found that 97.2% disagreed with unrestricted abortion at whatever stage of the pregnancy, with only 1.4% favouring complete liberalisation.

A majority of 45.5% disagreed with abortion if the mother’s life is in danger, and 78.5% also disagreeing with abortion in the case of rape.