Throwing out the bathwater with the baby | Mara Clarke

Malta is among the last European countries to have a total abortion ban in all circumstances. MARA CLARKE, founder of Abortion Support Network, argues that banning abortion doesn’t save babies… it just drives poor people to desperation

Mara Clarke
Mara Clarke

Your organisation, Abortion Support Network, offers help to women seeking termination services in (among others) countries where abortion is illegal, like Malta. What sort of service do you provide?

First of all, it’s important to note that Abortion Support Network is a non-political organisation, in the sense that… we don’t tell people how to vote. The groups that campaign for legislative change are the ‘cure’… we’re the ‘band-aid’. We receive calls from women who need assistance, and we explain to them what their options really are. Because most of the time, they wouldn’t know. These are not things they can talk about at home, or even with a doctor…

Can you give an indication of how many requests you got from Malta?

Sorry, no. Not yet. The most I can say is that we made an estimation of how many we expected to receive, based on the population and poverty levels… because if someone can afford it, they’re going to just go and do it, without needing any assistance… and we estimated correctly. I can also say that the age-range of requests we have got from Malta is from 19 to 37... with the majority in their late 20s-30s. But we will not release specific numbers for now. We normally just do that annually. One thing I feel I have to comment about, though, is the ignorance about sexual health in this country. I don’t mean it disparagingly; but we had people calling us who clearly have no idea about how sexual health works. A lot of people think that… ‘I last had sex two weeks ago, so I’m two weeks pregnant…’ But we have to tell them: ‘No, you start counting from the first day of your last menstrual period…. so actually, you’re four weeks pregnant’. Also, the fact that you can have a period while pregnant; and that you can get pregnant while you’re breastfeeding. Another thing that stands out is that, because of the stigma associated with abortion, and everything to do with sex and reproduction… the people who contact us from Malta are terrified. One of them told us that there is a genetic disorder running in her family; she was pregnant, and wanted to terminate if the baby had this disorder. But she was too scared to go to a doctor. What would happen if they knew she was pregnant… then later saw that she was no longer pregnant, and no baby? Could she be arrested? To me it is horrifying that these women, who clearly need help, are too afraid to seek it…

The existence of an abortion stigma cannot be denied, but there are indications that more people are willing to speak out about it. Recently a group of young women staged a public protest in Valletta: for which they received death threats. Why do you think this issue provokes such hostile/violent reactions?

The longer I do this work, the more I realise a few things. One is that there are people who are against abortion in all circumstances, even to save a woman’s life. They literally want to throw the bathwater out with the baby… and I am the bathwater. My daughter is the bathwater. All women are the bathwater. And… OK, if that is what they want to do, I can respect that. If they want to have this absolutist definition of ‘Thou shalt not kill’, that’s fine… as long as they are not wearing clothes made from two different fabrics, and are willing to stone their neighbour for working on the Sabbath. Because all that’s in the Bible too. But let’s put those people to one side. Most people, if you really question them, are usually OK with abortion in some circumstances. But then, their issue is not so much with abortion, in itself: it’s with judging the woman for her behaviour. Like: if it was incest, it’s OK… if it was rape, it’s OK. In all other instances, however… the woman is a slut. It is more about disapproval of women, than concern with the baby. This, by the way, is evident from the law itself: because laws which ban abortion don’t stop abortions from happening… they only stop poor women from having abortions. It’s a giant hypocrisy; and it was the same in Ireland quite recently: there was a law against abortion… but this doesn’t mean there was no abortion in Ireland. There was the same level of abortion in Ireland, as in any other European country. The only difference was that, when faced with an unplanned, unwanted or non-viable pregnancy… women with money and family had the option to travel to seek care; while women without money either had babies they didn’t want or couldn’t afford… or, from our own experience, often took drastic, life-threatening action to try and self-abort…

What sort of cases do you have to deal with?

I’ll tell you some of the things that our clients did, before they found out we could help them. There was a mother of three who had never done drugs in her life, who went out and got heroin... because she hoped the shock to her system would cause a miscarriage. There was a mother of four who was trying to figure out how to crash her car, so as to cause a miscarriage without dying or permanently injuring herself. There was a girl who had been raped, who sold her car, cut off her landline… and asked the rapist for a loan. She was also helpfully told by a so-called ‘family planning agency’ that if she had an abortion, she would be a worse criminal than the man who assaulted her. Because he was ‘only a rapist’, while she would be a ‘murderer’. There was a girl who got her boyfriend to pound her in the stomach with a baseball-bat... we’ve had people skipping rent, people rationing food for their families… these are all real, actual cases…

According to at least one woman who was interviewed (incognito) on Maltese TV some years ago, the local traditional method is for a woman to ‘throw herself down the stairs’…

Well, the old ways work the best. The only difference between 1850 and now is that, today, you can just Google ‘how do I self-abort?’ And hopefully, you will get a reputable provider of tablets, like ‘Women on Web’ and ‘Women Help Women’. But there is also the chance that… because this is an industry, right? So, all sorts of organisations claim to sell pills, and then just steal women’s money. Or send Paracetamol. Or delay… and the problem with delaying is that, the further you are into the pregnancy, the more expensive the abortion. The price doubles at 14 weeks, and more or less triples at 19 weeks… These are among the things we try and help people with when they call… because in most cases, people who call us will be in a complete panic; they would have just found out they’re pregnant… and they won’t know what their options are. And the options include parenting, too. We love it when, sometimes, a caller calls back in three weeks, or three days, to say, ‘You know what? I’ve decided to continue the pregnancy, because talking to you made me realise I have options. I’m not trapped. And now that I realise I’m not trapped, I want to have the baby.’ That’s fantastic...

Most people, if you really question them, are usually OK with abortion in some circumstances. But then, their issue is not so much with abortion, in itself: it’s with judging the woman for her behaviour

Coming back to calls from Malta. Reason I asked about numbers is because there is a perception that this is a very ‘niche’ issue that only affects a handful of people a year. Do you think that part of the reason Malta can persist with a total abortion ban, is simply that the demand is so low it can be conveniently ignored?

The numbers may be small, but it would only take one case to end in tragedy… like the Savita Halappanavar case in Ireland. But for me… I don’t care how small the numbers are. It could be just one person. And it doesn’t even make sense to talk about a ‘total abortion ban’… because your law doesn’t stop abortions from taking place. It only hurts poor people… poor, marginalised people: including refugees, by the way. What options does a refugee in a detention centre have, when faced with an unwanted pregnancy… possibly the result of rape? How are they going to travel? So, let’s stop pretending that the law stops abortions from taking place. Another thing is that: there aren’t even any family planning consultancy services here. We have to fund pregnancy option counselling in England… because there’s literally no place here that we can send people to get unbiased information…

The Savita Halappanavar case was raised locally as a possible scenario that is not catered for by Maltese law. Would you say it was the turning point in the Irish pro-choice campaign?

Yes, in the sense that it got more people to question their own opinions on the issue… but it was not the first case of its kind in Ireland. In 1995, a 14-year-old girl was raped. Her parents wanted to take her to England for an abortion; and the government said ‘no’, because back then it was not legal to travel for an abortion. Meanwhile, the girl was threatening to kill herself. So the case went up to the Supreme Court, then the European Court; and the ruling was that Ireland had to legislate on abortion in cases to save a woman’s life. Twenty-three years later, they did. But only after the death of Savita Halappanavar. We know that there were other deaths, but Savita’s family and friends were willing to come forward with what really happened. The fact of the matter was that her pregnancy was not viable. She was a medical practitioner – a dental assistant – and knew she was unwell; she asked for an abortion; and they wouldn’t let her have one because there was still a heartbeat. They waited until she got septicemia, and died. They prioritised an unviable foetus over a living woman. Savita Halappanavar had moved to Ireland with her husband because she thought it was a better place to raise a family… and Ireland killed her. But that’s not actually where it all kicked off.

The summer before, one of the anti-abortion groups had put up billboards saying: ‘Abortion tears her life apart – there is always a better way.’ A group of four very brave women, who had all travelled to England to abort in cases of severe foetal abnormality, came out and said: ‘Do you know what? There isn’t a better way, actually…’ They talked about what it’s like, to be hugely pregnant, and to have people coming up to you, going: ‘Oh my God! How exciting! Is it a boy or a girl?’ And having to tell them: ‘No, I’m going to have a dead baby…’ Also, some of these women had other children: how do you explain to your children that, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to give birth to your dead brother or sister…’? And there were Irish politicians – not all, of course, but a few – going around saying things like: “But you can’t be a ‘real mother’, unless you give birth to that baby and watch it die in your arms…” [Pause] But how can anyone make that decision for those women? This is what it all boils down to, really. If you got pregnant tomorrow; of your wife, or your 12-year-old daughter… who would you want to take that decision? You? The Pope? Donald Trump? The local priest?

You hear that sort of argument here, too. The religious answer would be that ‘life is a gift from God’ (and that includes the life of the severely abnormal foetus); a more secular version would be that the law should offer protection to all lives, including the unborn. How do you respond to those arguments?

At the end of the day, I’m a parent; I’m a person of faith; I attend services regularly; I believe in God; and I don’t believe God would punish a woman for making the right decision for her and her family. But even if you do believe that… then, let God judge her. This idea, that ‘you know what you would do…’ No, you don’t ‘know what you would do’. Because the number of times we have been called, and told things like: ‘I was totally pro-life… until.’ ‘I was completely against abortion… until.’ Until my wife, and the mother of my children, got cancer… and we were told she couldn’t have chemotherapy because of the harm to the baby. Until our 14-year-old daughter got raped. Until my husband killed himself, and left with me with five kids I can’t afford to feed. So those other people who can afford to make all these ‘anti-abortion’ proclamations… they’re lucky. I envy those people… because they don’t know what it means, to need an abortion and not have anywhere to turn. But I live in the dark. At Abortion Support Network, the calls that we get are from people who are in the dark. Like that mother of four, who wanted to crash her car to cause a miscarriage, but didn’t want to kill herself to be able to take care of her four other children. It’s chilling. But I also think that a lot of people who call themselves ‘pro-life’ are actually pro-choice. Because pro-choice doesn’t mean ‘everyone has to have an abortion’. It just means that you believe the decision is for the individual to make, and not the government. That’s all we’re saying. The stigma around abortion only hurts poor and vulnerable people. And it hurts families, too. Because people facing unplanned pregnancies are going to hide. Do you really want your daughters, your girlfriends, your nieces, and everybody else, to feel so shameful, and alone, and desperate… that they’re going to call complete strangers in England for help, instead of turning to you? Do want your own family and loved ones to feel they can’t confide in you, because they’re too afraid? Those are the questions I’d ask…

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