Society in general, and particularly Maltese society, is unkind to a woman who has an abortion. On International Women’s Day, why not show empathy rather than judgment? You do not know what a person is going through; you are not in her shoes.
by Liza Caruana-Finkel
Collage by the IotL Magazine
I have always been irked by certain issues in Malta. 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. However, I have come to appreciate the importance of standing up to injustice. Rather than surrendering to escapism and apathy, I am trying to confront the problems I see and to do my part in addressing them. That is why I decided to explore Malta’s long-standing taboo—abortion.
Abortion is not a new phenomenon, nor is it restricted to a specific geographical location; it is universal and present within all societies as a means to terminate unwanted—and also wanted, but complicated—pregnancies. Malta is the only EU country with a total ban on abortion. Regardless of its illegality, abortion is a reality, with women* who can afford it travelling abroad for abortion services. However, despite its statistical normality, abortion remains a highly controversial issue, and is far from being considered the norm.
For a research project, I spoke with six Maltese women who travelled abroad for an abortion, and one who took the morning-after pill (MAP) before it became available in Malta and had looked into ways to access abortion abroad. I wanted to know about their experience, but also about their opinions and perceptions. Towards the end of each interview I asked: What has been the best and the worst thing for you about the whole experience? What do you wish was different, and is there anything you would have changed? What advice do you have for someone who is currently going through the process?
On International Women’s Day, I would like to share what they had to say to help others going through a similar situation, entwined with my own thoughts and musings. It is a gesture of sisterhood; a token of women’s solidarity. The quotations I use are the women’s own and do not necessarily reflect my views on the matter. I am using this platform to project the voices of these women who, for various reasons, feel they cannot openly speak about this. In the socio-political climate of Malta, it is understandable.
The Best and the Worst
Stigma is powerful in the context of abortion, not only in Malta, but worldwide. It is, however, stronger in legally restrictive settings. Stigma can operate in different ways, but it often results in secrecy and silence—an attempt to avoid others’ judgment. On the other hand, feeling you have no one to talk to can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, as evidenced by Julia**, who felt “completely abandoned and alone.” It was at that time that she realised that she must fend for herself. Inadvertently, through the most negative she also experienced the most positive—she learned how to be independent; she knows how to manage on her own.
The women who travelled with friends were less likely to disclose sentiments of loneliness or isolation. In fact, having this personal support was the best thing about their experience: “I was never alone. That makes a huge difference” (Mimi). Mariposa, whose friend even accompanied her to the clinic, says this was “something very positive.”
Some women faced stigma from intimate partners, friends, physicians and other health professionals, and/or the general public. It is distressing when people in your life not only fail to offer support but cause undue harm through their words and actions. In this case, you are better off with no support, making women’s decision of non-disclosure understandable.
Smoky*** was glad she managed to find the MAP in Malta and that she was, in fact, not pregnant. With regards to the negative aspects she mentions a few: the lack of availability of the MAP at the time; the stigma surrounding these issues in Malta, such that “people who are meant to be professional judge and make things worse,” referring to the prejudice she experienced by a physician. Mariposa also experienced something similar when she was kicked out of a doctor’s office: “I was very angry. He was judging.” People do not realise what a negative impact stigma can have. It pushes women into the shadows by forcing them to remain silent; keeping secrets even from the people closest to them.
People do not realise what a negative impact stigma can have. It pushes women into the shadows by forcing them to remain silent; keeping secrets even from the people closest to them.
Tania wishes the abortion did not happen. She wishes she was not in a situation to need one in the first place, but: “The odds were stacked against me, against how I wanted to live my life.” She was, however, thankful that she could move on with her life, eventually having children when she was ready and with the man she loved. She explained emotionally: “I’m thankful that I had the chance to have a family… That a mistake is not going to cloud the rest of my life.” I felt compassion for Tania, who was glad to be able to talk about her experience so openly.
In reality, no one chooses to have an abortion for the sake of having one, and as Gozo bug says: “Even though I had to do it, it was not nice.” For her, the worst thing about it was “having to abort a life… It was a big thing.” On the other hand, having left an abusive relationship, the best thing about her abortion is this: “I am no longer linked to somebody who tried to kill me.” We never know what someone might be going through. What would you tell a woman in a domestic violence situation who needs an abortion? This scenario is more common than you might think.
What Do You Wish Was Different?
When I asked the women what they wished was different at the time (even if abortion was as unavailable and illegal in Malta as it is today), some of them—who had told no one about the pregnancy—said it might have been helpful to at least talk to someone about it. Many also mentioned that having some form of support network would have been beneficial. “It would have been good to have someone to talk to… Someone to ask for help,” says Julia.
Even though several women said they were strong enough to deal with everything on their own, they believe others might benefit from counselling. Mariposa, who got help from a gynaecologist, says having such a service in Malta would have been ideal in case she found no assistance: “I could have somewhere to turn to.”
The women acknowledged that having some form of support network would have been beneficial. “It would have been good to have someone to talk to… Someone to ask for help,” says Julia.
Tania acknowledges that there are places you could go to when experiencing an unwanted pregnancy. However, “these things are to this day run by the Church… If you go for help or support, they only give you their perspective… There is always a hidden agenda. There is always religion behind it… You won’t even try and approach a place like that about abortion.” Indeed, there is nowhere in Malta where someone can access unbiased pregnancy options counselling. This is why it is so helpful that Abortion Support Network now offers this service (via BPAS) to residents of Malta.
Advice for Others
Having someone to talk to can be helpful and cathartic when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. The women I spoke with said they would not ‘push’ anyone to have an abortion, or suggest it as the only solution, but would simply discuss all the available options—with abortion being one of them. Smoky would recommend looking up relevant information, whilst Julia would ask the woman what she wants to do and if she is sure of her decision. That is what being pro-choice is all about—believing the pregnant individual should be the one to decide whether to continue with a pregnancy or not.
Mariposa believes a woman needs to assess “if an abortion is a real need,” but that “the most important thing is to evaluate what effect this baby will have on your life.” Tania seems to agree: “What I would tell her for sure is this: A child is for life, so she should look at it again and again… A baby is a huge commitment. The biggest commitment a woman could ever have… If you think you can’t cope with this, with being a mother to a child for the rest of your life, then there’s abortion.”
Marilyn has already been there for women wanting an abortion, whilst Mimi has helped a woman by narrating her own story: “The woman asked: ‘Did you regret it afterwards?’ Everyone asks that question… I never regretted it. Not for a second.”
If the woman has already decided she wants an abortion, the women would all be supportive, with Julia saying she would offer to help her, including accompanying her to an abortion clinic. Marilyn has already been there for women wanting an abortion, whilst Mimi has helped a woman by narrating her own story: “The woman asked: ‘Did you regret it afterwards?’ Everyone asks that question… I never regretted it. Not for a second.” On the contrary, Mimi explains that she speaks about ‘post-abortion’ with joy.
None of the women I spoke with regretted their abortions, and this is the advice they have to offer:
Tania: “The first thing I would tell her is to stop the white noise in her head. Don’t let the white noise make you feel even guiltier than you are going to feel. You need to shut your mind. You need to believe that what you’re doing is the best decision for you. And don’t let anyone instil doubts in your mind about morality, about murder, about criminality, about nonsense, and about how you’re meant to live your life… Anyone who’s going to go through this needs to get rid of the white noise in their head… Otherwise you’ll suffer.”
Mariposa: “If you think that that is the best decision in your circumstance, you shouldn’t be scared, and you should do it.”
Marilyn: “Don’t think of anything. And don’t think about your husband, about your boyfriend. If you want it, go for it. Just focus on yourself, nobody else. This is your life, your body, and no one can judge you.”
Julia: “She shouldn’t be scared, because she knows what’s best for her. If that’s what she wants, she won’t regret it.”
Gozo bug: “It is your body and your choice. Your life. I would be quite happy to share my experience. But it is a very, very personal decision. I would support them either way, because it’s their choice, not mine.”
Silence can act as a tool of oppression. It bars those who have had an abortion from contributing to the dialogue on abortion; from a conversation that involves them. A vicious circle exists, whereby women’s experiential knowledge is indispensable to a change in public perception, but where women refuse to speak up publicly because of public perception.
Another problem is that silence masks the reality of the experience of abortion and underestimates its prevalence. When women’s stories remain hidden, abortion continues to be deemed an ‘extraordinary’ and ‘rare’ event. Hence, abortion opponents miss out on interactions which might make them more tolerant and empathic towards women who seek and have abortions.
When women’s stories remain hidden, abortion continues to be deemed an ‘extraordinary’ and ‘rare’ event. Hence, abortion opponents miss out on interactions which might make them more tolerant and empathic towards women who seek and have abortions.
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. 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.
People who have had an abortion are the ones best equipped to tell us what it is really like. They are the ones who can help address abortion stigma and break the taboo. That is why I believe that real abortion narratives 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; personal experiences really can lead to political and social change. Through the voices of those who have experienced this we can begin to understand the reproductive decisions that women may be faced with.
Society in general, and particularly Maltese 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. On International Women’s Day, why not show empathy rather than judgment? You do not know what a person is going through; you are not in her shoes.
* Although I mostly write ‘woman’/’women’ (because most people who have abortions, including the participants in the study I conducted, are women), I recognise that other people—including trans and non-binary people—can also be pregnant and need an abortion. I do not wish to exclude or offend anyone.
**These are all pseudonyms, chosen by the women themselves, in order to maintain their anonymity.
***Smoky is the woman who did not have an abortion but took the MAP before it became available in Malta and had looked into ways to access abortion abroad.
Liza Caruana-Finkel has a masters degree in gender and women’s studies. She is passionate about social justice, currently working and collaborating with various NGOs. She has a special interest in reproductive rights, particularly in the context of Malta. Liza was born in Ukraine, grew up in Malta, has lived in Russia, and currently resides in the UK.