‘Maltese doctors could be jailed for counselling patients on abortion. We’re scared’

Keeping abortion a criminal offence is hindering doctors from speaking freely to patients, says Dr Alexander Clayman of Doctors for Choice

Dr Alexander Clayman
Dr Alexander Clayman

Keeping abortion a criminal offence is hindering doctors from speaking freely to patients over fears they will be accused of assisting in a criminal act, Dr Alexander Clayman, a member of Doctors for Choice, has told MaltaToday.

The organisation was launched earlier this week in a bid to support the Voice for Change campaign for reproductive rights by the Women’s Rights Foundation.

Clayman said the law is leaveing women at a disadvantage, because many are not aware of the health services available to them. “The removal of discrimination against those who elect to have an abortion must be a priority. There are circumstances were women who have the means to go abroad, don’t, purely because they aren’t aware that it’s a viable option for them, for instance, women carrying foetuses with foetal abnormalities which are incompatible with life outside the womb.”

Clayman said that in such cases women would be able to terminate abroad, had they been given the right information. “This is all because of a draconian law making doctors fearful of giving proper counselling: ‘assisting abortion’ carries a four-year jail sentence.”

Clayman said that while it is not illegal for doctors to give information, they are limited in what they are allowed to say. “We can tell patients to go on the Abortion Support Network website and get information there, but it’s far from ideal as we aren’t able to counsel our patients, and even if we could, very few would because there is fear within the medical community about the repercussions,” he said.

Doctors for Choice is made up of 25 doctors from a variety of specialities such as gynaecologists, family doctors and paediatricians, among others. The group is advocating safe, accessible, comprehensive, evidence-based reproductive healthcare in Malta.

Despite its first statement posted to social media being unsigned, Clayman insisted that the group was not anonymous. “Members were wary of coming forward because of retribution. “It’s difficult coming forward and naming yourself, especially when you see people who are vocal receiving death threats. But I think as time goes on, people will become more comfortable.” The group has hinted that a campaign could be on the horizon, but have not gone into any detail.

Clayman said the group however is not promoting abortion, attacking the misconception that being pro-choice and being pro-abortion were one and the same.

“Abortion does involve killing, and that isn’t good in and of itself. The issue is: can that be justified? And sometimes the answer is yes. A woman doesn’t wake up one morning, and just decides to have an abortion, but for various reasons – medical, physiological or social – it could be justified. The whole point is women’s autonomy, it’s about freeing the woman.”

Clayman said it was ridiculous to compare a newborn baby with a five-week embryo. “Often people ask, what’s the difference between killing a baby and a five-week embryo? The difference is, a baby is capable of living outside the woman’s uterus, so the woman benefits in no way from the death of the baby: that would certainly be murder. However, the five-week embryo requires the woman’s uterus. If there was a way to remove the embryo and put it into a tank and grow it from five weeks, we wouldn’t need abortion; but until that day comes, we do.”

READ MORE: New doctors' group calls for safe accessible abortion in Malta