Looking back at 2020 | Women take the lead in abortion debate

Despite 2020 being a trying year for all, woman have found their voices in the abortion debate, and the taboo subject can finally be debated on a national level

“I am writing my story with hope that this can help legalize abortion in Malta. I will never forget my abortion in 2012. As I type I’m crying. Not a lot of people understand, and its not something I’ve talked about with anyone. I hope my story helps. Women and girls in Malta need options and we need support.” 

“I wanted to share my story as I want people to understand that by wanting to have an abortion, that doesn’t make you a bad person, and it’s ok to think of oneself. I do believe I am a great mother now and I am happy that I can give my children what they need, but I’m not sure I could have been a good mother back then and definitely couldn’t afford to be a mum.”

The above are comments sourced by the Dear Decision Makers campaign, explaining why women have chosen to come forward and share their abortion stories in 2020. The campaign is attempting to bring the voices of women to the forefront of the abortion debate on the island and joins hosts of other organisations that have cropped up over the last two years – such as Doctors for Choice, and Voice for Choice (a coalition of NGOs) among others.

Campaigners: Emily Galea, Laura Paris, and Alessandra Baldacchino brought home the reality of women and abortion with their Dear Decision Makers campaign
Campaigners: Emily Galea, Laura Paris, and Alessandra Baldacchino brought home the reality of women and abortion with their Dear Decision Makers campaign

Undoubtedly, despite women’s voices being brought to the forefront in the debate, 2020 has been a trying year for all. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns across Europe exposed just how harmful Malta’s total ban on abortion can be. During the height of the pandemic, Abortion Support Network (ASN) saw a surge in women requesting assistance to terminate pregnancies.

“I think one of the reasons the figures have gone up is because of the pandemic, because before, women who had the means to get on a plane and have an abortion, would do so – however – now everyone in Malta and subsequently Europe, knows what it feels like to be poor, or a migrant, and not have the means to get on a plane and have an abortion. It made women collectively understand the struggles of others,” ASN founder Mara Clarke told MaltaToday back in September.

However, 2020 also saw a noticeable shift in the way abortion is discussed on a national level. In July, European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli reaffirmed her “commitment to ensuring women and girls have access to health and medical care including sexual reproductive rights”. Even though Dalli said some had misinterpreted her comments, and that she would respect member states in their choice of abortion legislation, she joined the handful of Maltese politicians willing to speak out in favour of reproductive rights.

In October, TVM’s L-Erbgħa Fost Il-Ġimgħa featured what turned out to be a civil discussion on abortion, with a line-up that included the European Court of Human Rights judge emeritus Giovanni Bonello, activist and lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic, pro-choice doctor Isabel Stabile as well as Konrad Borg and Nicola Micallef Stafrace from Doctors for Life.

A month later, Malta’s newest Labour MEP, Cyrus Engerer, broke ranks with the traditional abdication of Maltese members in Brussels to support reproductive rights, by supporting a resolution condemning the abortion ban in Poland. Engerer was the only Maltese MEP to vote for the resolution.

Pro-choice doctor Isabel Stabile
Pro-choice doctor Isabel Stabile

Reflecting on the year, Prof. Isabel Stabile told MaltaToday she agreed that until recently any discussion about abortion had been taboo within Malta’s medical community, let alone among the general public – although doctors in Malta inevitably have to deal with women seeking abortions and post-abortion care. Prof. Stabile highlighted that in a study held in 2019, 454 local doctors in Malta revealed for the first time that the majority agree that abortion should be legalised in limited circumstances, such as when a woman’s life is in danger and cases of fatal foetal anomalies. This study is now being repeated among younger doctors and students, and Prof. Stabile said she was quite sure that the results will be even more significant.

“We are convinced that public opinion is changing… there is undoubtedly a momentum behind the pro-choice campaign in Malta over the past year.

“We realise that opposition to abortion in the general population is high, given that most Maltese consider themselves Catholic. We are also aware that politicians have, until recently, been very reluctant to mention this taboo subject. However, some politicians now seem to be sensing that public opinion is starting to shift, and with that will come a shift in their opinion.”

Prof. Stabile said that the pro-choice camp believes the setting-up of Doctors for Choice started a conversation amongst Maltese medical doctors as well as future doctors among whom the lobby has significant support. A study done by the NGO in May 2019, found that opposition to abortion was in the region of 95% however; after 18 months of campaigning it has fallen to around 80% with around half of under 26-year-olds reporting they are pro-choice in the latest survey.

“We are also seeing members of the public becoming more vocal in favour of choice on social media and other outlets. It is a gradual process, but so far, progress has been more rapid than we had expected. We believe that changes in public opinion will continue because more and more Maltese are realising that laws do not necessarily need to reflect religious dogma.”

Prof. Stabile said that over the last few years, opposition to abortion had shifted in Malta from primarily the Catholic church to far-right political parties, as well as voluntary organisations affiliated with anti-choice networks abroad such as Agenda Europe and Heartbeat International. “We regularly receive a significant number of hate messages on our Facebook page from such individuals, most of which we ignore. We report some of the more egregious ones to the Hate Crimes Unit, in the hope that the long arm of the law will put an end to this,” Prof. Stabile said.

She highlighted said that recent cases in Malta such as the delayed treatment of methotrexate for an ectopic pregnancy showed that waiting until a situation is considered “serious enough” before intervening to prevent a fatality, may well be too late. “Just because we have not as yet had such a case (or at least not to our knowledge), does not mean this could not happen. The most crucial aspect is that women should be in a position where they can contribute to the management plan of their own pregnancy promptly,” she said.

Prof. Stabile pointed out that if it can happen in Ireland, which until recently had a legal ban on abortion, it can happen anywhere else with similar restrictive laws. She said the only way to ensure that this does not happen is to eliminate the total legal ban on abortion. “Malta’s complete ban on abortion impacts not only the patient-doctor relationship but also the advice provided to women with an unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy complicated by the poor health of the woman or a foetal anomaly (even if wanted),” Stabile said.

The ban also affected the quality of post-abortion care as many of those who do have abortions by travelling or by using pills cannot obtain the same follow-up as women in countries where abortion is legal. “We certainly respect the views of those who believe that life begins at conception. However, as doctors, we believe we should be allowed to offer the option of abortion legally and safely to those women who share our views. So, yes, we are optimistic that a reform of abortion law in Malta will happen sooner than most people expect,” she said.