Looking back at 2019 | ‘Women aloud’ on reproductive rights

Malta’s pro choice voice has come to the fore to break a taboo in Maltese life and introducing the important issue of reproductive rights into the national debate; it is early days but an important moment for the women’s movement

The growing movement spearheaded the first ever pro-choice rally hosted in Valletta by Voice for Choice on the occasion of International Safe Abortion Day
The growing movement spearheaded the first ever pro-choice rally hosted in Valletta by Voice for Choice on the occasion of International Safe Abortion Day

The 2010s has been an important decade for Malta: a national campaign to end censorship in the arts, the legalization of divorce, same-sex marriage and gay adoption, gender identity rights and wider access to IVF.

But as the decade draws to a close it’s important to highlight that women’s rights have never received the attention they deserve until perhaps now. 2019 saw a major shift, specifically when it comes to reproductive rights, from the UK-based charity Abortion Support Network (ASN) expanding its service to Malta at the beginning of the year, to the first-ever Maltese pro-choice coalition launching a bid to legalize abortion shortly after. The discussion surrounding reproductive rights has never felt more tangible; it would appear that finally, there is an audience ready to hear and mobilize, despite the majority opinion that prevails in Malta.

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, typically in the UK or Italy. Abortion is surrounded by a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality, a no-go area for the Maltese and a politically untouchable subject: sensitiveness against abortion means there are no votes to be won; a lack of awareness on backstreet abortions, or complacent acceptance that women can fly to the European mainland for abortion, make it a “non-issue”.

In 2018, MaltaToday polled the Maltese to find that 95% are against unrestricted abortion in the first three months (12 weeks) of pregnancy. Just 17 months’ months later in July, the paper conducted a similar survey and found that a resounding majority 97.2% disagree with unrestricted abortion at whatever stage of pregnancy, with only 1.4% favouring complete liberalisation.   

The survey found that a majority of 45.5% now disagree with abortion if a mother’s life in danger, an upswing of 19 points. Last year, the survey found that abortion enjoyed majority support only when the mother’s life was in danger. Nonetheless, this remains the circumstance in which abortion is most agreeable with 37.4% supporting the termination of pregnancy, a drop of eight points since last year.

Another significant change was a seven-point increase in the opposition to abortion in case of rape. Those who oppose pregnancy termination in this circumstance now stand at 78.5%. But unlike the circumstance when a woman’s life is in danger, those who agree with abortion in rape cases remained relatively static at 14.6%.

Andrea Dibben, spokesperson for Voice for Choice
Andrea Dibben, spokesperson for Voice for Choice

Despite this clear resistance, in February Abortion Support Network expanded its services to Malta and Gibraltar, providing women with confidential, non-judgemental information about the least expensive ways to arrange an abortion and travel to clinics that the ASN works with, within several EU countries, and, where necessary, receive financial help towards the cost of travelling from their home country and paying privately to access a safe legal abortion.

Speaking to MaltaToday in March, the founder of the network Mara Clarke announced that ASN had teamed up with the British Pregnancy Advisory to enable women 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.

For Clarke, abortion was an inescapable reality, and that despite what the majority wanted, it was not acceptable to pretend that abortion was an abstract thing. “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.”

That same month, Voice for Choice, the first-ever Maltese pro-choice coalition, launched a bid to legalize abortion in Malta. Voice for Choice, which is made up of a wide spectrum of organisations and individuals, is campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion and advocating for laws which ensure that the health of pregnant people is protected in line with international human rights standards, through proper abortion care.

The coalition said it was “striving for a society based on equal respect and justice, free from discrimination for all genders and minority groups.”

Then for the first time in May 2019, a group of independent medical professionals came together to form Doctors for Choice Malta. The group is advocating for safe, accessible, comprehensive, evidence-based reproductive healthcare in Malta. Putting a face to an opinion which until this point has always been surrounded by secrecy.

Dr Alexander Clayman, the first person from the NGO to speak publicly, told MaltaToday that keeping abortion a criminal offence was hindering doctors from speaking freely to patients over fears they will be accused of assisting in a criminal act. 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.

In September 2019, ASN, published statistics which up until this point had been hard to come by. They revealed that 43 women from Malta have contacted them seeking out information on abortions overseas; the average age of women contacting the charity was between 19 and 45.

The growing movement spearheaded the first ever pro-choice rally hosted in Valletta by Voice for Choice on the occasion of International Safe Abortion Day. This was met with opposition from pro-life activists who hosted their own gathering also in Valletta. The turnouts to both events were both relatively small, with roughly 200 persons attending both rallies.

There is no doubt that in 2019 there has been a shift not only in the way abortion is spoken of, but perhaps more importantly, the proactive role activists and medical professionals have taken in the debate, allowing for the first time on the island, a space where people can share their stories, and finally be heard and accepted.

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