Malta is for now the EU’s last country where abortion is banned in all cases. While some are beginning to call for a public debate on women’s reproductive rights, the topic of abortion remains a highly sensitive issue in the archipelago.
Having an abortion is punishable by up to three years in jail – and those who carry them out can be imprisoned for four years and barred from practising.
Insiders reporter Valerie Gauriat travelled to Malta to investigate how much of an appetite there is for change, in a country where talking openly about the issue is out of the question.
Abortion – Malta’s taboo subject
“I was 17 and I got pregnant. The decision was to go to England and get a termination. Something went wrong in the procedure because I woke up, half way through. And I wanted to get off the operating table. And they said no, no, and put me back down. And I think they hurried up, they rushed the operation,” said one Maltese woman, who’s identity is being protected.
“The day after, when I left, I was in pain, and then was in the aeroplane I started heavily bleeding, with lots of blood clots.”
Another anonymous women told us: “I was close to my 44th birthday. So I discussed it with my husband and we both decided that for our family and for our four children the best thing would be to have a termination.
“It’s something hard, mostly because you can’t share it with anyone in Malta. You have to carry a secret like you’ve done something really wrong.”
Words from women afraid to be identified, who would never speak out in the open about having travelled in the United Kingdom to have an abortion.
In Malta, having an abortion is a criminal offence, punishable by up to three years in jail – even in cases of rape and when there are health risks. It is an issue smothered in silence.
“Abortion in Malta is very much a taboo subject. I’ve made repeated efforts, including here in my hotel room, to try and convince people to talk to us, particularly those who want to decriminalise abortion. They exist, they’re active on social media, but speaking openly is out of the question,” reported Euronews’ Valerie Gauriat from Malta.
Paul Vincenti does not hesitate to speak. He is a businessman and a leading figure in Malta’s pro-life movement – heading up the Gift of Life Foundation.
His message is clear.
“To me and the majority of the people in Malta, who believe that life begins at conception, it’s unthinkable that we could kill another human-being just because they’re wanted or unwanted. We see ourselves as pro-life, not anti-abortion,” he said.
“It’s wrong to kill. It’s wrong to kill a child, but it’s right to support and help a mother who may be in that situation.”
Supporting young mothers
In Malta, home to 450-thousand people, motherhood is a cult.
A centre, run under the Ministry of Education, is currently helping around 50 teenage mothers, aged between 12 and 18.
Those attending receive support during pregnancy and the early days of motherhood.
“The programme itself is a programme that helps them in awareness, also not only to take their role as young mothers but also as students and also as women, and also maybe as possible partners in a relationship and in their families,” explained Melanie Bonavia, Officer In Charge, Servizz Ghozza.
Now a teacher, Deborah Bartolo returns to help out at the centre, after receiving support herself five years ago.
“We passed through a full programme where we emerged as stronger human-beings,” said Bartolo.
“And I believe that every life deserves to be born and every life deserves to be appreciated. It was my responsibility, what can you do? If you seek help you will find it and you will be able to do it.”
But not everyone can, or wants, to follow this path.
The only option left for them is to travel to abortion clinics in the UK or nearby Sicily.
Malta’s medical community
Clandestine abortions are rare, if not non existent, in Malta – those who carry them out can be jailed for up to four years and lose their licence.
Abortion is rarely talked about in the medical community, we are told.
We protect the identity of one doctor who speaks to us – speaking openly would cost her her reputation and perhaps her job.
“Most people who are adamant to have an abortion are having it anyway. And I have known of people traveling back sedated, bleeding, this is a fact,” she said.
“One of the perhaps easier to discuss issues is abortions which are denied to mothers who know they are carrying foetuses with no chance of survival. I myself have seen in the same few hours two children being born with anencephaly, which is being born without a brain, and Edwards syndrome, which is not compatible with life,” the doctor continued.
“And there were the mothers who carried them, and then had to watch them die, in incubators. How do you get over that? How do you have a life after that?”
The trauma of abortion
Eleanor Borg is a psychotherapist. She runs a programme initiated by the Gift of Life organisation, to support pregnant women in crisis situations – as well as women who chose to abort.
Eleanor says trauma is inevitable.
“Because in Malta, abortion is illegal, and there’s a lot of fear of judgement possibly; for example if I went for the experience, I might be afraid to share that I have been through the experience of abortion,” she said.
“So then I keep it to myself, and I don’t have the possibility of healing, because I don’t grieve. The experience is kept within, the symptoms get worse over the years, and there are a lot of implications on the woman’s life.”
One of the Maltese women who went away to have an abortion commented: “Having to do everything in secret, being so afraid you’re going to get caught, being so afraid of the consequences of what people are going to talk about you in such a small community. These are traumas.
“It’s not an easy choice and we should not be put in a position like I was, when I was 17 years old. So vulnerable, so afraid, so ashamed. It was the best decision at the time. It was. I don’t regret the decision.”
The other women we spoke to anonymously echoed:
“I was pro-life before, you know. I never thought it would happen to me you know. But it did. This can happen to anyone,” she said.
“I’m not a criminal. I’m a loving mother and I think I did it mostly because I care about my four children.”
Malta is not for turning
For now, the Maltese government is not considering decriminalisation of abortion.
In power and opposition, the country’s two main political parties both reject any relaxation of the ban on abortion.
And around 60 percent of Maltese people do too, according to a recent survey.
“We have seen over the years, certain groups within society, who are moving. In fact, 60 percent against, is already showing a change. Because some years ago it was much higher,” said Renee Laiviera, Commissioner, National Commission for the Promotion of Equality.
“However, both political parties keep the same position. So this is why I say, if anything, we need to have a public debate. The group who would like to see any change has to work for it.”
Under the Labour government, laws allowing civil unions for same sex couples and the right to choose gender identity without conditions have been voted in.
But with abortion, public debate remains a challenge. A reluctance to change, attributed in part to values of Catholicism. But that is not all.
Euronews’ Valerie Gauriat reported: “Sociologists we’ve contacted didn’t want to meet us. And ultimately it’s here in the village of Zabbar, whose patron saint is the Madonna, that we see some light, in the street of the Immaculate Conception.”
If pregnancy is so sacred and abortion such an untouchable topic, religion alone does not explain it – one social policy researcher tells us.
A fear of being imposed values seen as detrimental to those of Malta’s identity was a central concern as it joined the EU.
“The size of Malta is very small. So elements of social control in terms of social stigma tend to be also much more poignant than bigger societies,” said Andrea Dibben.
“It’s also an island that has been colonised for 7,000 years. There is this element of fear of being invaded, not just physical invasion, but it’s also this element of conceptual invasion. This idea that our thoughts, our lifestyle, our national identity, our behaviours will be eroded because of the influences of more liberal countries.”
Abortion – time for a public debate?
While pro-choice groups remain covert, others want a public debate on the morning after pill – which is also banned in Malta.
It is one of the many issues discussed in a women-only Facebook group run by Francesca Fenech Conti.
“The morning after pill and emergency contraception and women’s reproductive rights are something that we need to discuss,” said Francesca, who is Founder and Administrator for the Women for Women group.
Nikita Zammit Alamango, chairperson of an equal opportunities group for women in the Labour party, commented: “We need more women especially to come out and speak up. I believe that if we want a change we need to speak up for it.”
Francesca added: “At least, we want to start talking about the possibility of having a choice.
“The choices available are actually dangerous, because most women, instead of emergency contraception, one pill that is (sold) over the counter in other countries, they take a mixture and a big amount of the normal contraceptive pill, and this can be dangerous as well. So we want to start an informed discussion. So we hope we are at the beginning of some changes in Malta, for the future. For women in Malta.”