A local service offering abortion and reproductive health advice received just over 200 requests for help in the first six months since its launch in the middle of the pandemic.

Family Planning Advisory Ser­vice went online in August in response to what its co-founder Dr Isabel Stabile said was “a massive increase in traffic” to Doctors for Choice, the NGO that advocates for reproductive rights.

The demand for information was from people unable to access abortion services due to travel restrictions, she said. Abortion is illegal under any circumstances in Malta.

“Although opposition to abortion in the general population is high, the significant numbers of persons calling the advisory ser­vice for help clearly shows that there is a thirst for unbiased reproductive health education on the island,” Stabile pointed out.

“An average of just over one person a day contacts us, which we feel is significant considering the size of our population.”

These are handled by a roster of volunteers, including medical doctors, social workers and others who have received training.

The service provides information through a hotline and online chat, to people seeking online medical abortion services as well as financial assistance to access abortions in other countries.

They also answer questions on how to access emergency contraception and post-abortion ser­vices in Malta, as well as responding to more general reproductive health care issues, including what types of contraception are available in Malta and how to obtain them. “We believe that this free service is helping people think differently about the issue of abortion and changing wo­men’s experience for the better by giving them the assistance they need,” Stabile said.

A UK-based charity offering abortion support has also reported that requests for help from women in Malta spiked since it extended its services to the island in 2019.

The Abortion Support Network, which provides support and funding for those having to travel to access an abortion, received 126 requests for help from Malta, up from 75 the previous year, according to founder Mara Clark Klein.

While the network was becoming more well-known, the increase in calls had a lot to do with the pandemic-related complications to access abortion services, Clark Klein said.

Securing abortion pills from overseas presented its own challenges this year, she added, pointing out that the network received many calls from people anxious about postal delays.

“In a sense we’ve been lucky because almost everyone who has contacted us has been early enough in pregnancy to get tablets rather than have to travel,” she explained.

She highlighted that even when travel restrictions were lifted, the pandemic caused several complications, which made travelling to the UK for an abortion both difficult and expensive.

“For the people who do have to travel, I can tell you it’s not easy. Flights are not regular and timing appointments with arrivals can be challenging.”

Last year, the network provided funding to two Maltese women to travel for an abortion, compared to the handful the year before. If the costs of having an abortion in the UK usually totalled around €1,000, they have now gone up to €1,500, Clark Klein explained.

“Our clients have always faced obstacles but the pile of obstacles during the pandemic just got taller.”

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