Malta is still worse than Saudi Arabia, when it comes to abortion

Despite government’s claims of having ‘made history’ by legalising abortion in life-or-death circumstances, LARA DIMITREJIVIC – of the Women’s Rights Foundation – argues that Bill 28 represents a ‘massive step backwards’ for Maltese women

Lara Dimitrijevic, director of the Women’s Rights Foundation
Lara Dimitrijevic, director of the Women’s Rights Foundation

In an article last Sunday, you voiced your own disappointment with Bill 28: described by the government as a ‘historic’ amendment, which – for the first time ever – allows doctors to terminate pregnancies, in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. This is, admittedly, a good deal less than what your organisation was demanding. But doesn’t it also mean that Malta can no longer be described as ‘the only country in the world (apart from maybe El Salvador) where abortion is illegal, in ALL circumstances’? And if so: isn’t that a small step forward, in itself? 

Well... we might not be able to argue, anymore, that Malta is one of the few countries left to have ‘a total abortion ban’... however, we can still argue that – in 2023 – Malta has a so-called ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic’ government, that has now created a situation whereby women are further ‘controlled’... and, even more worryingly, a situation which also places women’s lives at further risk.  

Because what this Bill has effectively done, is merely ‘codify’ a medical practice that had always existed, in the past; but which had never been codified before. In other words, what was previously an unregulated practice, carried out (so to speak) ‘behind closed doors’, is now fully encoded into the legal system.  

And this changes matters, considerably for the worse: because it also means there is now the possibility of being exposed to charges of negligence, and incurring fines for damages, etc. Under those circumstances, no consultant, or medical professional, will now risk taking a decision of this nature, just ‘over the phone’... or by simply ‘examining the patient’, as used to happen in the past. 

Now, with this Bill, the medical profession is going to be more cautious, when it comes to deciding whether a woman’s life is in danger, or not. Now, there has to be consultation with other specialists... and all this adds up to a waste of precious time, which could further endanger women’s lives. 

And this is very, very concerning. For while it may be true that we can no longer say, ‘Malta is the only country to ban abortion, in ALL circumstances’...  we can certainly say that, by this very step, we have already gone backward. By this very step, we still are in a situation where countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, are more advanced than us, when it comes to women’s rights.  

Imagine that. We're talking about a country that has arguably the strictest laws in the world, with regard to women; and yet Saudi Arabia is still in a better position than Malta, when it comes to abortion care... 

One of your main criticisms of this Bill was, in fact, the decision to appoint a ‘three-member board’, to establish whether any given pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life.  At a glance, this raises issues that go beyond abortion. I am unaware, for instance, of any other medical condition – especially, if it might ‘lead to death’ – that requires an entire committee, to actually diagnose. Am I right in guessing, therefore, that you view this more as a case of ‘discrimination against women’, in general... than a controversy about ‘female reproductive rights’? 

Oh, absolutely! This is, in fact, what I am most angry about; because this goes well beyond the issue of ‘access to abortion’ – which, to me, is a healthcare issue. Many will disagree, of course; and that’s all fine.  

But this? This is a situation where... 

Let me put it this way. Malta’s ‘total ban of abortion’  - i.e., before Bill 28 - had always been a situation which had less to do with ‘abortion’, than with ‘how the State-controlled women’ (or ‘people who have a uterus’; let's be as inclusive as possible).  

Now, however: not only does the State continue to exercise exactly the same ‘control’, that it always had in the past: because if a woman wants to terminate a pregnancy - by choice; and for whatever reason – she can’t, because it is still a CRIMINAL [heavily emphasised] offence...  

But with this new amendment: the circumstances for legal abortion have become so restrictive, that we now need three consultants, to take a potentially life-saving decision. Because at the end of the day, they have to be consultants. We’re not talking about any old random doctors, running around the corridors of a ward.  We’re talking about two gynecologists, and another consultant who might be treating the woman for other health issues.  

So they have to be of a certain ‘level’, within the medical profession; and they also have to be available, at very short notice – because time is obviously going to be of the essence, in cases like this.  

Most worrying of all, however: all three of those specialists will also have to be in agreement, in what is effectively a life-or-death situation: where the clock is ticking, and every second counts... 

And this is what angers me so much, about Bill 28. It can – in fact, it almost certainly WILL – lead to death, in the future. 

We've already seen this happen, in places like Ireland. We all saw what happened in Poland, just a few weeks ago: when Dorota Lalik became the fourth woman to die in that country, in the space of around a year, because of delays in providing vital abortion care.   

We know, therefore, that women are actually dying, because of the very strict situations that they have introduced in countries like Poland, Hungary, etc.  

And we know why those women are dying, too. It’s not because those countries still have laws against abortion, even in life-threatening circumstances. It’s because, with all these ‘moral restrictions’ that are now being introduced, it simply takes too long for there to be a timely consensus... still less, a timely intervention. 

And besides: what would happen if one, or more, of those three consultants, is of a different opinion from the others, for ‘moral’ reasons?  And what would happen, in a case where a complication arises before, let's say, the 12th week of pregnancy? In those cases, all it takes is ‘tele-medicine’. There is no ‘abortion procedure’, to speak of. It's just tablets.  

So... do we still need the approval of those three consultants, to just ‘prescribe medication’? It's appalling. It's absolutely appalling... 

Speaking of medical abortion, tablets, etc.: part of what your organisation does (‘officially’, so to speak), is to provide information to the general public, on how to access precisely that sort of service, locally. Many people out there are of the opinion that this is, in itself, ‘illegal’ (especially given that the law specifically criminalises the act of ‘assisting’ in the procurement of an abortion). There have even been threats to take criminal action against you, and others, on that very basis... 

[Laughing] Not just ‘threats’! We’ve had people like Ivan Grech Mintoff, of the ABBA party, filing not one, but two criminal complaints to the police, for us to be investigated... 

Did the police ever act on those reports? And how do you respond to those accusations, anyway? 

Let’s start with this. The service we’re talking about is part of a programme called ‘Family Planning Advisory Service’: ‘F-Pass’, for short. Basically, it's a helpline that people call, to ask about anything related to the sexual reproductive rights of women: from access to contraception; to pregnancy tests; to... you know, just ‘dealing with a pregnancy’; that sort of thing. And yes, that includes providing information about ‘access to abortion care’, too.  

So they [Grech Mintoff and co.] are arguing that, because we are providing information on how to access abortion care in Malta, we are therefore ‘aiding and abetting in the crime of abortion’.  

Now: as for whether the police took action, I believe that the first complaint was never really ‘investigated’, because - following the advice of the Attorney General – the police concluded that we were not doing anything illegal. 

The second complaint that they submitted was once again dismissed, for the same reason. And now, currently, Ivan Grech Mintoff and his party are challenging the police’s decision in court: insisting that they take legal action against us – and by ‘us’, I specifically mean the Family Planning Advisory Service. That’s the situation as it stands, right now. 

As for how I ‘respond’.... all I can say is, we are definitely not doing anything ‘wrong’, here. All we are doing is providing information about a service that is accessible in the European Union.  

So even if you only look at it from a European Union perspective: in the EU, there is something known as ‘Free Movement of Goods and Service’, which effectively means that any citizen, in any EU member state, has the right to access all the goods and the services, that are currently available in the European Union.  

For that reason alone, there's nothing ‘illegal’ in what we are doing. And this has also been established by the European Court of Justice.  

In Ireland, a similar case arose back in the 1980s. And the ECJ clearly ruled [SPUC v Grogan, 1991] that abortion constituted a ‘service’, under the Treaty of the European Union; and that as a consequence, the Irish student group that had been prosecuted for providing information about that service, was not doing anything ‘illegal’. 

But then, of course, you get people like Ivan Grech Mintoff: who still seems to think that we ought to be prosecuted, over something that is actually one of the EU’s core principles: ‘Freedom of Service’... 

Coming back to last week’s article: you ended with an appeal for MPs to ‘take a stand’ about Bill 28. In itself, this seems to suggest that Civil Society (or at least, the pro-choice part of it) doesn’t actually have any options left at its disposal, now that the Bill has been unanimously approved. Does this mark the end of the road, for pro-choice campaigners such as yourself? Or are there other ways in which you intend to carry on the fight? 

I wouldn’t say it’s the end of the road, because... the fight hasn’t stopped, just because this Bill has passed. That is, in fact, the whole point of the Constitutional case filed by Andrea Prudente against the Maltese government: she is challenging the abortion ban, on the specific grounds that the lack of access to termination, in a case that put her health – and potentially, her life -at risk, was a violation of her fundamental human rights.  

That case is still ongoing, as we speak; and I don’t exclude that there may be other cases in future, too.  

So the system is still being challenged: among other things, on the grounds that women in Malta are being discriminated against, on two counts: one, they are being denied the rights accorded to them by the Human Rights Charter; and two, they are being illegally denied access to services, to which they have a right under European law. 

In fact, just last summer, the Foundation for Women’s Rights filed a judicial protest – signed by 188 women – arguing that ‘not having access to abortion care’ is discriminatory, on those same grounds.  

And the argument is being made internationally, too. The European Parliament is now discussing this. Even Roberta Metsola herself has signed the Simone Veil Pact [which defines ‘access to safe and legal abortion’ as ‘a Fundamental EU Right’]... 

So things are certainly moving forward, at the international level. At the same time, however – and this is the part that truly scares me – there also seems to be a ‘regression’ going on, in terms of women’s rights.  

Not just in Malta, where women’s rights have just taken a massive step backwards; but in Europe, too; and the rest of the world, in general. Much as there has been progress, in many countries... there has also been a ‘push-back’ – or a ‘retaliation’ – in several others. 

We saw this in the United States, during the Trump era; and more recently, with the reversal of ‘Roe Versus Wade’. We saw it in Poland, where legislation is being made even more restrictive, when it comes to abortion care. And in Orbán’s Hungary, we have even seen the introduction of ‘gay-free zones’. Elsewhere, Croatia and Bulgaria refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention on the Elimination of Violence against Women...  

There is, in brief, a backlash against all the progress that has been made: not just with regard to women, but also LGBTQ rights; minority rights; even the concept of ‘fundamental human rights’, itself.  

And up until recently, I used to think to myself: ‘How lucky we are, that we're not seeing the same thing happening here in Malta’ (where, let’s face it, things were moving in the opposite direction, until fairly recently.)   

But... well, this is something that I can no longer think of today. Because this is exactly what it looks like, to me. What we have seen, with this Bill 28, is exactly how this sort of ‘pushback’ – or ‘backlash’, ‘regression’; call it what you will – can start to happen, in your own country.  

And it scares me. It scares me... a lot.