Abortion in all forms is illegal in Malta, with no exceptions. It is the only country in the European Union where abortion is outlawed. Having an abortion is criminalized, and the woman faces three years in prison, whereas the abortion provider faces four years in addition to losing their medical license. The last time a woman was imprisoned for having an illegal abortion was in 1980. There is no comprehensive sex education on the island, nor free contraceptive options. Moreover, it is difficult to come across the morning after pill – although it has been legal to purchase since 2016, pharmacists can claim conscientious objection. Additionally, there are no state-run family planning services. The few services that exist are run on a volunteer-basis.
The criminalization of abortion practices does not mean abortions do not take place. In fact, Malta’s abortion rate of an estimated 300-400 abortions a year is similar to that of the European Union on average. Abortions just take place “underground”. Women are forced to travel abroad, that is if they can afford it, or procure abortion pills online. Prior to COVID-19 and accompanying travel bans, traveling to Italy, England or the Netherlands was a method for Maltese women to terminate a pregnancy in a safe and legal environment. Additionally, ordering abortion pills (mifepristone and misoprostol) online, through the help of independent family planning clinics, has become an increasingly popular service. The family planning clinics facilitate contact between the women and organizations that send pills via mail so they can abort at home, such as Women on Web and Women Help Women. They have effectively created a telemedicine service in a country where abortion access is impossible, and women fear being prosecuted. The pandemic highlighted the difficult abortion access on the island; the number of pills shipped via mail doubled from 2019 to 2020.
Malta’s abortion law dates back to the Criminal Code of 1854. It is based on Catholic values and gives no exceptions for legal abortions.
Chapter 9 of Malta’s Criminal Code states:
Article 241 (1): Whosoever, by any food, drink, medicine, or by violence, or by any other means whatsoever, shall cause the miscarriage of any woman with child, whether the woman be consenting or not, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from eighteen months to three years.
Article 241 (2): The same punishment shall be awarded against any woman who shall procure her own miscarriage, or who shall have consented to the use of the means by which the miscarriage is procured.
Article 243: Any physician, surgeon, obstetrician, or apothecary, who shall have knowingly prescribed or administered the means whereby the miscarriage is procured, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from eighteen months to four years, and to perpetual interdiction from the exercise of his profession.
Abortion has been illegal without exceptions and criminalized in Malta since 1854. The first legislative attempt to change the abortion law came in May 2021, when MP Marlene Farrugia proposed to decriminalize abortion – not legalize it. Rather, Farrugia’s bill would repeal the Articles that penalize abortion and replace them with a 10-year imprisonment for those carrying out non-consensual abortions. Farrugia argued that "we all know that safeguarding women’s rights does not come through the threat of putting them in prison". Farrugia’s proposed bill was blocked by the opposition in early stages, claiming decriminalization is the springboard to abortion right before birth. The Maltese Prime Minister later said he would rather resign from his position than sign a law that “involves the authorization of murder”. It sparked a conversation about abortion on the island that is long overdue.
The Catholic faith is strong in Malta, and although abortions appear to be as common as on the European mainland, having an abortion is still a taboo and not something many women talk about openly. The website Break the Taboo hopes to contribute to destigmatizing the issue by providing a platform where women can share their abortion stories. As Rita tells us, the fact that abortion is criminalized, instilled a fear in her of sharing her abortion experience with those closest to her, at a time when she needed them the most.
Written by: Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway
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