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Pro-choice activists hold abortion rally in Valletta: ‘We are not going anywhere’

Pro-choice activists gathered in Valletta on Saturday in a show of solidarity with Maltese women who had abortions in secret because Malta’s law criminalises them.

People rallied in Valletta’s main street behind the banner Everyone Loves Someone Who Has Had An Abortion, the theme chosen for this year’s International Safe Abortion Day.

Activists carried placards with various messages, including one that played on the Labour Party electoral slogan of 2013 (Malta Tagħna Lkoll): 'Għoxxi mhux tagħna lkoll (My vagina is not everyone else's)'.

The activists called for the decriminalisation of abortion and for this to be provided as a service in the healthcare system. They also called for “inclusive and comprehensive” sex education and the provision of family planning services. Among those who attended were Labour MP Randolph De Battista and his partner Cyrus Engerer, an MEP.

Activists rallied in Valletta carrying various placards stressing the need for women to be given the choice to have a legal and safe abortion in Malta (Photo: Marianna Calleja)

Activists rallied in Valletta carrying various placards stressing the need for women to be given the choice to have a legal and safe abortion in Malta (Photo: Marianna Calleja)

The rally ended in front of the law courts where Andrea Dibben from the Women’s Rights Foundation recalled the prosecution of a vulnerable mother some months ago for carrying out a medical abortion at home.

The mother of a small child was a victim of domestic violence and was reported to the police by her partner. The woman was charged and after admitting was handed down a three-year conditional discharge.

“For us you are not a criminal. You are our sister. You are one of us. Whoever you are, wherever you are, we are angry and disgusted with what you had to go through and you have our support and solidarity,” Dibben said with reference to the woman.

But she also took a pot shot at politicians whom she accused of “burying their heads in the sand” and treating women as “second class citizens”.

Dibben blasted the changes to Malta’s Criminal Code earlier this year, which for the first time reformed the law that criminalises abortion. The final version of the amendments put forward by the government allow doctors to terminate a pregnancy if a woman’s life is at risk and if her health is in ‘grave jeopardy that may lead to death’.

The changes were approved by parliament but the government came under fire from pro-choice activists who felt the law was simply preserving the status quo. Government’s original amendment was to allow an abortion to take place if a ‘woman’s life or health are at risk’, allowing wider leeway for doctors to intervene if a pregnancy was going to have a debilitating impact on a woman’s health.

Activists recalled that a woman was charged in court this year after her abusive partner reported her for carrying out a medical abortion at home (Photo: Marianna Calleja)

Activists recalled that a woman was charged in court this year after her abusive partner reported her for carrying out a medical abortion at home (Photo: Marianna Calleja)

However, government caved in to pressure from pro-life activists and other conservative forces, who were also supported by the Opposition. President George Vella had also threatened to resign if the original proposal passed through parliament. Government eventually tightened the screws and qualified the health aspect despite Prime Minister Robert Abela having said several times that protecting women’s health was non-negotiable.

READ ALSO: After abortion U-turn, Labour MPs stick to party line: ‘It’s a historic change’

During her speech, Dibben called out Abela’s hypocrisy when earlier this year he expressed “discomfort” over the arraignment of the woman, who performed an abortion. This was just before the final amendment to the law was made public.

“We are here today to convey a clear message that if there are those who are feeling uncomfortable with our presence in the middle of Valletta, because our presence reminds them that women in Malta are treated as second class citizens, because for political motives they continue to bury their heads in the sand and bow their heads to conservative lobbies.. we remind them that we are not going anywhere,” she said. “We will continue to be more vocal, to call out your hypocrisy when you say that you feel 'uncomfortable' that a vulnerable woman is brought to court and less than a month later you pass a law that plunges us further into the patriarchy.”

Cynthia Chircop, coordinator of MGRM, the LGBTIQ rights movement, dwelt on the “paradox” of Malta’s civil rights record.

“We’ve made huge leaps in LGBTIQ rights, and Malta just showed off its civil rights record in the largest pride week it has ever seen, EuroPride, yet reproductive care is still years behind,” she said.

“LGBTIQ rights and the right to reproductive healthcare, including abortion, have one common foundation; bodily autonomy. This is a fundamental right. It is the foundation for other human rights and especially gender equality. And until every person can truly say that their body is their own, that they have power and a choice over it to ensure their own wellbeing, then we will continue to be here,” she said.

Lawyer Carla camilleri, the assistant director of Aditus Foundation, a human rights organisation, told activists they were also pro-life – the term used to describe those against abortion.

“We are pro-life. Pro-woman, pro-the person who is pregnant. We are in favour of protecting the life of people whose pregnancies put their mental and physical health at risk, without the need to go through lengthy and risky hurdles imposed by our criminal laws,” she said.

She said current legislation criminalising abortion was discriminatory. “We are in favour of equality: where asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, who are prohibited from travelling, would have access to abortion in the same way that we know a significant number of more affluent women do when they travel overseas to procure one.”

The rally was also addressed by Essa from Students for Choice, who spoke of the reluctance by some students to speak up because “moving the needle too much” could affect their social status. She said the organisation is a safe haven to those students who believe that a pregnant person should have a choice.

It is estimated that annually around 300 women residing in Malta have an abortion, either overseas or through pills. However, the number could be higher since the criminal nature of abortion makes it uncomfortable and risky for women to talk about their ordeal.

READ ALSO: More than half of women in Malta who completed a medical abortion after buying pills online already had children