‘We can debate abortion all we want… but Maltese women are getting on planes’

Mara Clarke’s charity will give women advice and funding on how to get an abortion outside Malta. Her silent coup marks an important milestone in women’s rights in Malta

For nine years, Mara Clarke’s charity helped women in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man – all places where abortion is illegal or severely restricted. Now her service has reached Malta (credit Emma Campbell)
For nine years, Mara Clarke’s charity helped women in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man – all places where abortion is illegal or severely restricted. Now her service has reached Malta (credit Emma Campbell)

For Mara Clarke, the founder of women’s charity Abortion Support Network (ASN), the ultimate victory would be for her organisation to no longer be needed. “For us, victory would be to shut down, and for the phone to stop ringing.”

Malta is the only country in the EU where abortion remains illegal, but at the same time, hundreds of women leave Malta each year to have abortions overseas.

And abortion still remains very much a taboo, surrounded by a mentality of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, with surveys conducted by MaltaToday proving an overwhelming majority of over 95% against abortion, making it a politically untouchable subject.  

But for Clarke, abortion is an inescapable reality. “We can debate abortion all we want, we can pretend it’s this abstract thing, but meanwhile I know that Maltese women are getting on planes. I know that for the people who can afford it, it’s an inconvenience, and for the people who can’t, it’s catastrophic.”

In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that globally per every 1,000 women who fell pregnant, between the ages of 15 and 44 from 2010 to 2014, 35 of those pregnancies ended in abortion, or a ‘spontaneous miscarriage.’

That same year, the WHO estimated that globally between 2010 and 2014, 25% of pregnancies ended in abortion. In the UK alone, according to the Department of Health and Social Care in 2017, there were 192,000 abortions for women who were residents in England and Wales and 197,533 abortions including non-residents.

For nine years, the ASN has helped women in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man – all places where abortion is illegal or severely restricted – end unwanted pregnancies. The organisation does this predominantly by providing judgement-free, informed answers to practical questions: what is the cheapest way to fly from Cork to England for an abortion, for example?

In February, ASN expanded to Malta and Gibraltar. The news came without the usual alarm bells ringing: when Dutch women’s activist and abortion doctor Rebecca Gomperts came to Malta to advise women on Women On Waves’ abortion services – delivered aboard a ship on the high seas – the pro-life lobby rallied supporters outside the Osborne Hotel where Gomperts was delivering a public address.

But the connectivity and confidentiality of the internet and the affordability of air travel has changed things. Offering information through the ASN helpline, website, or by email, ASN works with in several EU countries, and where necessary, provides financial help towards the cost of travelling from the home country and paying privately to access a safe, legal abortion.

Clarke started ASN nine years ago, on the basis that not being able to afford an abortion shouldn’t be the only reason for a person to become a parent. In its first year, ASN had 89 individuals call their helpline – in 2018 they had 800 individuals reach out for help.

“What brought me to this work, was finding out that they were women in America, many of whom already had at least one child, who wanted to have an abortion but weren’t able to afford it… so they’d start raising the money, only to find that the further along their pregnancy got the more expensive the abortion would get and that’s when people would do really desperate things.”

She said the cases she has seen of women who had reached breaking point “would turn people’s hair grey.”

“You can’t even begin to imagine. There was a woman who had three kids, she’d never done drugs a day in her life and she went out and bought heroin because she hoped the shock to her system would cause a miscarriage and then there was a woman who didn’t know her teenage daughter was pregnant until she found poison underneath her bed.”

Clarke explained that ASN will also be offering a new service in family planning: “In Ireland while they didn’t have abortion, they at least had family planning.”

To provide this, ASN has teamed up with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, to enable women in Malta and Gibraltar to call them on the phone and have a counselling session with somebody who will give them factual information about their options – pregnancy, adoption or abortion. “We will also be offering for people under ten weeks pregnant, if they wish, information for the reputable providers for safe but illegal early abortion pills,” she said.  

Clarke emphasised that ASN isn’t trying to influence anyone’s decision.

“A lot of the time, the clients that contact us in a panic are soothed after speaking to professionals and decide to carry on with the pregnancy. However other times, people contact us and have said: no I’ve thought about it, I’ve done all the maths, and I just can’t afford to have a baby, or another baby right now.”

She said being a parent is a big deal. “And it shouldn’t just be because you had a broken condom, or a lapse in judgement, or were the victim of a sexual assault, and don’t have 500 pounds in the bank.”

Clarke reiterated that ASN was not interested in getting involved in the political situation on the ground. “If ASN expanding helped organisations in Malta fighting for abortion rights, by making people aware of the reality that the law doesn’t stop them… then that could only be a good thing.

“We came because Maltese people over the years have reached out to us… we came because they asked for our help. It’s a false assumption, when people say: well I don’t know anyone who’s had an abortion. Everybody knows somebody who’s had an abortion.”