Abortion may be illegal in Malta, but an organisation operating a widely-publicised website is willing to send Maltese women a package that will enable them to terminate their pregnancy at home.
After receiving a completed online consultation form and a 'donation' of €70, the organisation will send women in Malta a package of pills by regular registered air mail.
The organisation told The Sunday Times, which posed as a 20-year-old, seven-week pregnant woman from Malta seeking an abortion, that it would send the package and that it should arrive within two weeks.
The newspaper's e-mail to the website stated: "I am really desperate to seek help in a country where it's almost impossible to get an abortion. Only a few of my friends know about my unplanned pregnancy and I have not yet told my parents, who would kill me if I had to tell them I was planning an abortion... and is there any way anybody will get to know what the package is, especially those (at the postal service)?"
Within a few hours, came the e-mailed reply: "I understand your concerns. The package would be sent through regular airmail (registered) and it would take about two weeks to arrive. It is the safest way, although not the fastest."
Customers must answer 25 questions on the website before they are allowed to purchase the drugs, and women are advised to have a pregnancy test and an ultrasound if possible. The website advises against the use of the medicine if the pregnant woman cannot get to a hospital or first aid centre within an hour. But no one actually speaks to the woman concerned.
When contacted, Donald Felice, president of the Malta College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, described the importation of such drugs as an extremely dangerous game.
"This transcends the legal and moral aspects of abortion. The repercussions are serious. This is like a doctor prescribing treatment to a patient they've never seen," he said.
Dr Felice said that any act of abortion brings with it its fair share of complications, let alone one performed at home without any assistance.
These types of oral pill (containing Mifepristone or Misoprostol) have a number of side-effects - they are sometimes used under strict control to induce birth or to start a miscarriage in cases where babies die in the womb.
The website only lists the normal side effects of the medicines, which includes cramps, vaginal blood loss, and vomiting. "You can use painkillers to relieve the pain. Blood loss is often heavy with clots. If the abortion is complete, the bleeding and the cramps diminish," it says.
However, Dr Felice believes the consequences could be far more serious: "There is no way of verifying that the buyer is telling the truth. What if the woman is more than nine weeks' pregnant? That would trigger off massive complications, like haemorrhage... even death."
The website stirred controversy in the past week following a study published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which found that nearly 11 per cent had needed a surgical procedure after taking the medication.
The journal, which probed 400 customers, said that women in more than 70 countries, especially those living in places with tight restrictions, were using the internet to obtain pills for do-it-yourself abortions - in spite of the potential dangers.
Applicants are urged to make a €70 donation to keep the "website online, to maintain the service and make sure it will continue to be available for other women in need of help."
There is no reference to any legal ramifications for the buyer. According to Joe Giglio, a lawyer specialising in Criminal Law, if the woman takes the pills and procures her own miscarriage she could face anything between 18 months and three years' imprisonment.
If a woman is caught in possession of the pills before taking them, thus indicating an attempted abortion, she would also be liable - though she is likely to receive a lesser sentence. Dr Giglio also explained that it is illegal to import a medicine without the required licence from the health authorities.
However, he said it was difficult for the Maltese authorities to prosecute the website in a Maltese court if the jurisdiction of the country it is based in says there is nothing illegal in procuring such medicine.