Commentary Abortion

Abortion in Malta: When Silence Kills

Stigma Shame and Sexuality Series

The family ideal may place restrictions on abortion in Malta, but it doesn't stop women on the island from resorting to abortions on their own. Those women who can't afford to leave the island do it illegally putting their health at risk.

This post is by Marie Anne Zammit, and is part of Tsk Tsk: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality, a series hosted by Gender Across Borders and cross-posted with Rewire in partnership with Ipas.

Anita’s star was rising. She was slowly heading toward the peak of her career and life seemed to be fulfilling her ambitions and aspirations. It all happened suddenly. One cold day, Anita discovered she was pregnant and all her prospects ebbed away. She could not commit herself to raising children, especially now that all paths had been open. Anita longed to escape from this unexpected situation but had no way out and no one could offer the help and support she needed.

Circumstances could have been different if instead Anita lived in a country where abortion was legal Unfortunately, Anita lived in one of the EU states, Malta, where abortion is legally restricted, criminalized, and a highly sensitive issue. These EU countries are Malta, Ireland and Poland, which prohibit abortion, and where abortion is only permitted if there is a question of life or death and where birth would cause the death of the mother. However, even in these circumstances, access remains very limited.

In Malta, abortion is rarely discussed and whenever it is debated in the media or in public, it always results in heated arguments. Women’s control over their bodies and their reproductive rights provoke strong reactions from conservative groups and religious groups who call themselves “pro-life.” These groups seem to be numerous and appear more regularly on the media than the others who are pro-choice.

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Often, I wonder if there are any groups who are pro-choice in Malta, for even political parties, including the Malta Green Party, were restricted in their campaigns and had to declare that their political views and manifestos are not in favor of and do not promote the introduction of abortion on the island. Given the fact that they did, the consequences would result in lesser votes in the General election. The reality is that Malta is still predominantly Catholic and the Church has a great influence on the state’s decisions.

There may be women who are pro-choice and in favor of abortion but prefer to remain silent. They do not sound their views in public as they may have to deal with unpleasant situations as a consequence of being blunt and forthright on the subject of abortion.

The effects may be subtle at first and would manifest in isolation at work and from certain circles, limited or no chances for promotion at work, and in certain situations, even character assassination.  The few women who express themselves in favor of abortion are considered to have no maternal instinct, viewed as weird, or seen as justifying their actions for having an abortion sometime in the past. These repercussions make it hard for women, even for women in politics. In most cases, they have to keep silent and conform to the traditional family values.

The family ideal is still considered as the culprit of Maltese society but this does not mean that women on the island are not resorting to abortions. Those women who can afford to do so travel to other countries – mainly England and Italy – in order to have an abortion. Recent figures obtained by the Maltese National Statistics office declared that an average of 57 abortions a year were carried out on Maltese women in England and Wales in the previous ten years. In 2008 the figures dropped to 38, but went up in 2009 with 78 abortions.

Other women who can’t afford to leave the island do it illegally putting their health at risk. Most often, clandestine abortions are performed by individuals who are not medically trained and the hygienic conditions are unregulated.

Situations where women’s health and life are not protected may trigger further complications. Incomplete abortions result in hemorrhages and infections. After this failed intervention, women often end up at the Casualty Department presenting other excuses, such as saying it was a miscarriage, or they not go to hospital at all, which is even more serious. This is because, if discovered, these women face criminal charges, and even if the operation fails, no one would risk taking responsibility. In Malta the penalty is three years’ imprisonment.

In spite of these risks, women are still resorting to unsafe abortions and legislation is the only key to eliminating clandestine abortions. This goes along with more measures to prevent unwanted pregnancies and avoid abortion. In situations where abortion is the ultimate solution, it ought to be safe.

If not, it would mean that women have no rights over their bodies and no guarantee that their health and lives are protected. I am afraid that the situation will remain the same and abortion will remain prohibited, adding to women’s risks and giving more power to men, to the Church and to moral conservative groups to dictate for us women.

Meanwhile, those who are pro-choice cannot have their voices heard for they have to face the consequences. It seems that the liberals are losing their battles and at the end it is women who are suffering most and risking their lives.

Marie Anne Zammit is a Maltese social worker, author, and artist, and she currently coordinates a social issues committee for the National Council of Women in Malta.

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