And the debate, or what little of it is managed without degenerating into chaos, rages on. But beyond the drama, the passionate column inches dedicated to the subject and the emotional cacophony which is inevitably created every time the ‘A-word’ is mentioned, there is another different reality, which, whether we like it or not, is staring us in the face…
Liza Caruana-Finkel has recently completed an M.A. in Gender and Women’s Studies at Lancaster University, with a dissertation focusing on abortion titled ‘A long-standing taboo: Personal abortion stories of women in Malta.’ Liza’s educational background includes a B.Sc. in Radiography from the University of Malta and an M.Sc. in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Sussex. She has worked as a radiographer in medical and research settings in Malta and the UK. Eventually, Liza diverted her focus from healthcare to sociology, deciding to delve into the realm of feminism, something she has always been interested in. She has since developed a special interest in reproductive rights, particularly in the context of Malta. Liza is passionate about social justice and continues to work on reproductive rights, collaborating with various organisations in the field. She also works at an organisation that supports and empowers women who suffer from domestic abuse. Liza was born in Ukraine, grew up in Malta, has lived in Russia, and currently resides in the UK.
– You have just recently obtained your master’s degree in Gender & Women’s Studies at Lancaster University with a dissertation, for which you garnered a Distinction, about abortion in Malta. What is the study about?
This is a qualitative study on personal abortion experience of Maltese women, involving in-depth interviews. I focused specifically on Maltese women who were living in Malta at the time, and who travelled abroad for an abortion. This is because I wanted to look at the experiences of women who were raised within the Maltese culture, surrounded by the Maltese mentality, and the influences of the Roman Catholic Church. I was also interested in looking into the added barriers (e.g. expenses, secrecy, social stigma) faced by women accessing abortion services whilst living in a country where it is illegal.
My aim is to present detailed first-hand accounts of some Maltese women’s abortion realities, providing a glimpse into an aspect of Maltese society that is usually hidden, tucked away under layers of silence, secrecy, shame, stigma, religious bigotry, archaic ideas, and social judgment. I wish to tackle the stigma surrounding women’s reproductive choices; to dismantle the secrecy and silencing surrounding abortion. Through the ‘voices’ of Maltese women I have sought to challenge the disconnect between public opinion, political activism, religious dogma, and women’s actual experiential knowledge. I believe that we cannot progress unless women’s abortion narratives are at the center-stage. Looking at women’s lived experiences provides insight into the human aspect of reproductive choice.
– What was your final objective in choosing such a controversial issue?
Abortion is indeed a controversial issue. I chose to tackle it because I believe it is an injustice that women in Malta face. I have always been irked by certain issues in Malta, such as the lack of divorce prior to 2011, the unavailability of the morning-after-pill until late 2016, and the illegality of abortion until present. My response used to be frustration at the situation, at the influences of the Church, and the wish to escape what I see as the oppressive state, laws, and public perceptions in the country. Lately, however, I have come to appreciate the importance of standing up to injustice. Rather than surrendering to escapism and apathy, I decided to try and confront the problems I see and do my part in addressing them. In the words of the anti-racist American feminist writer Angela Davis, ‘I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.’
– Given that to speak up about abortion is still taboo, how was the overall response from women who were willing to participate in this study? Was it difficult to get women to come forward?
Understandably, many Maltese women who have had an abortion find it incredibly difficult to speak out. The stigma surrounding abortion is immense. Most women I have been in touch with expressed fear of loss of anonymity and the social impact that this may have. This sheds light on how Maltese society operates within a culture of silence and silencing in relation to controversial topics. Additionally, some women might not know that they cannot be prosecuted in Malta for an abortion done legally abroad. Speaking to different women I could sense an internal conflict between wanting to break the silence and being held back by the fear of potential social consequences. All this made the recruitment process for my study quite challenging.
Earning the trust of participants was the hardest aspect but this was made easier by important trustworthy contacts and safe portals. To reach out and recruit the participants I took advantage of different social media networks. Women for Women Facebook group was particularly suitable for this purpose. Other organisations and portals whose help was invaluable include Women’s Rights Foundation and also Pro-Choice Malta Facebook page. I would like to express my gratitude for their support.
I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the women who participated in my study – strong, diverse, and intelligent women who chose what was best for them. This project would not have been possible without their generosity and braveness in willing to discuss such a private, sensitive, and highly stigmatised subject. When people share their personal stories, only then can social change happen. The pleasure of getting to know them and hearing their stories was all mine.
– Is there a typical profile of the girl/woman who travels abroad to have an abortion?
There is a common misconception that a particular ‘type’ of woman has an abortion. In reality, abortion is common and women from all walks of life have abortions. However, if we focus only on the women who travel abroad, this is very often restricted to those of a certain financial income that allows them to afford the related expenses. This makes overseas abortion as an only (legal) option, discriminatory towards women of lower social income who cannot afford it. There are of course other problems with abortion not being available in the country itself, such as circumstantial constraints which may include issues with childcare, living in domestic violence situations, migrant status, and work-related obstacles (e.g. inability to take vacation leave). In reality, even in constraining environments, some women still manage to find a way to travel to another country to access abortion care, sometimes by borrowing money in order to be able to afford it. All of these obstacles and constraints cause delays, potentially prolonging anxiety, and increasing the costs.
– Women opt for abortion for a myriad of different reasons, but is there a situation which is common for most women? A common denominator which leads to their decision in opting for the procedure?
The literature shows that the most common reasons for abortion are timing, partner-related issues, wanting no (or no more) children, and financial problems. The women I spoke with gave varied reasons that led them to have an abortion. In most cases the women were not prepared to have children at a specific point in time, and the reasons included being in an abusive relationship, being single, ambition to study, and career progression. The circumstances surrounding each woman’s life at the time were crucial in determining her decision. The personal stories these women shared with me included becoming pregnant despite contraceptive precautions, domestic violence, and even rape. None of the participants in this study said that they had an abortion due to financial concerns.
– What do you think about the way in which abortion is portrayed in the media?
Contrary to what has been portrayed in the media for a very long time, and as a consequence the perception of the general public, the decision to have an abortion does not have to be a traumatic experience. Unfortunately, in many cases it is the impact of society’s perception and the stigma surrounding it that is traumatic, rather than the process of abortion itself. Decisions can be hard, and some women may grieve after an abortion. In fact, there can be numerous different emotions associated with abortion; some positive, others negative. However, difficulty and grief do not necessarily translate to regret. Indeed, most women mentioned feelings of relief, saying they believed in their choice and their freedom to live life as they themselves wish, and not according to a pre-conceived social model of ideal womanhood. None of the women I spoke with regretted their decision, positing that it was the best decision for themselves at the time. It is not that the women were glad to have an abortion, but that they saw it as an opportunity to start anew, without having to be ‘tied down’ by abusive partners or single motherhood, or because they did not wish an unwanted pregnancy to, as expressed by one participant, ‘cloud the rest of their lives.’
On a more personal note…
– What do you think of the reproductive choices available to girls/females in Malta?
Malta is the only EU country where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, criminalising both the woman and whoever assists her in the termination. The law pertaining to abortion is found in the Criminal Code of Malta, under Title VIII – Of Crimes Against the Person. A woman found guilty of abortion in Malta risks serving 18 months to 3 years in prison. I believe this legislation violates women’s reproductive rights, constitutes state violence, and perpetrates inequality based on sex, socioeconomic status, and country of residence. The fact that women have to seek abortion care outside their own country is an indication of the secondary citizenship that women in Malta experience. Additionally, as already discussed above, reproductive choices for women who cannot afford to travel abroad are even further restricted.
Restrictions on abortion do not eliminate the need or prevalence of terminating unwanted pregnancies, they only make abortion less safe and increase the barriers surrounding this reproductive choice (e.g. finances, travel logistics). Unfortunately, current laws in Malta appear to be in symmetry with cultural attitudes on abortion, marred greatly by the deeply engrained teachings of the Church. Indeed, there appears to be a link between religious dogma and strong opposition to reproductive choice. This has created a climate that inhibits reproductive choice, further stigmatising a universal, highly prevalent event. Society is unkind to a woman who has an abortion, who is shamed for not living up to the social ideal of motherhood and womanhood.
– Do you believe that we’ve reached a point where we can freely debate this subject, or are we still a long way away? Do you believe there is a way forward? How?
I believe things are (slowly) getting better. People are finally discussing abortion, perhaps more openly than in previous years. Women’s Rights Foundation published a position paper on sexual and reproductive health and rights earlier this year; a play on abortion was staged in October; and now there is a new Facebook page called Break the Taboo Malta, where women can anonymously post their abortion stories. We definitely need to do more; to talk more about it. We are not yet at a point where we can ‘freely’ debate it in my opinion. Our voices are still being shut down by the anti-choice rhetoric. People still worry about voicing their opinion, as the fear of social stigma is still strong. In fact, social unacceptability of abortion was discussed by all the women I interviewed, both in the context of their own abortion (whether 10 or 30 years ago), and in reference to the current sociopolitical climate. People who believe in reproductive choice are labeled ‘murderers,’ and women are told to ‘keep their legs closed.’
I think that the way forward is to listen more, judge less, and show more empathy. We need to stop with the silencing, the shame, and the stigma. The problem with silence is that it masks the reality of abortion experience and underestimates its prevalence. This translates to the belief that abortion is an extraordinary and rare event, despite its normality and universal occurrence. I believe the public needs to become more educated on abortion, and that the media needs to accurately report on the issue.
I honestly think that real stories of abortion have a prominent role to play. Experiential knowledge matters, and if there is to be progressive change within not only legislation, but also the societal mindset, women’s voices need to be heard. Reproductive rights activism needs to be informed by women’s experiences, because personal experiences really can lead to political and social change. Through the ‘voices’ of women who have experienced this we can begin to understand the reproductive decisions that women may be faced with. In the words of the columnist Zoe Williams from The Guardian, ‘The only people who can break the taboo on abortion are people who have had abortions.’
– Earlier this year, Ireland, probably the last conservative Catholic bastion in Europe, has repealed the controversial Eight Amendment, effectively paving the way for the right to a safe and legal abortion for Irish women. Do you believe that in Malta abortion will be legalised anytime in the future?
The repeal of the 8th Amendment has shown us that change is possible, even in a profoundly Catholic nation such as Ireland. This, in turn, paves the way for other countries in the world with deeply-rooted religious mentality, such as Malta. I believe, and hope, that change will come in Malta as well. However, we need to make change happen by pushing through the political, religious, and legal barriers of abortion law reform. Malta needs a change in both the law and in the societal mindset.
At the end of the day, the current situation causes undue burden on women with unwanted pregnancies, and also on women with wanted but complicated pregnancies (including situations such as fatal foetal anomalies, and risk to health and life of the pregnant woman). There are added obstacles that women in Malta face, such as increased financial cost, stigma, and potential isolation.
Worldwide, approximately 25% of pregnancies end in abortion,1 for a variety of reasons. About 45% of these are unsafe abortions,2 i.e. not carried out according to WHO standards and guidelines. Studies show that abortion is less safe in more legally restricted settings.3 We need to move forward by realising that there is no such thing as ‘eradicating abortions.’ What we can do is eliminate unsafe abortions, by ensuring that women and girls have access to the healthcare they need in Malta.
1 Guttmacher Institute, 2017. https://www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2017/worldwide-estimated-25-million-unsafe-abortions-occur-each-year
2 See note 1. 3 See note 1.
I am for reproductive freedom, which refers to the opportunity to decide whether, when, how, and with whom you have children. I believe every child should be wanted and that quality of life is highly important. Only the pregnant person should have a say on such a personal matter.
I believe it is worth fighting for change; it is worth working for social justice. I hope that my research can help inform and advance the public debate on abortion in Malta, potentially leading to discussions of legislation. – Liza Caruana-Finkel
Ms Caruana-Finkel would like to thank her supervisor Dr. Vicky Singleton for her guidance throughout this project and is now looking into publishing her research and making it available to a wider audience.