Maria* spent the last months of her pregnancy knowing the foetus she carried inside of her had an inverted heart and a hernia that had spread to its stomach.
Her obstetrician had told her the body would probably self-abort and there was nothing they could do in the meantime.
“I kept growing bigger and bigger, and people kept congratulating me. I worked in a showroom, meeting people every single day, and they kept asking me how far along I was, and whether I was expecting a boy or a girl. Strangers would stop me in the street, touch my belly and ask questions like: when are you due?” Maria recalled.
But she knew her baby would die the minute it was born, if not before.
“They made me pass through this immense physical and psychological trauma. All because some men in power made this choice for me: that there should be no termination. No matter the circumstances. Not even if the baby has absolutely no chance of surviving outside of the womb. I was forced to be a walking grave.”
Her daughter lived for only 50 minutes following a C-section delivery. It took Maria four years to mentally recover, but 15 years on, she is still facing trauma and repercussions. She has since gone through a second C-section, meaning she cannot have any more children.
Maria’s story is one of 50 real-life accounts featured in a publication that authors Laura Paris and Emily Galea hope will bring to light the impact of the blanket ban on abortion in Malta.
Malta is the only EU country that has a total ban on abortion, and human rights organisations have spent years calling for a debate on abortion, the lack of which had surprised former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks in 2017.
Earlier this year independent MP Marlene Farrugia tabled a private members' bill proposing decriminalisation of abortion but fellow MPs shot it down.
The pro-life movement argues that human life begins at conception so the abortion ban is necessary to protect the right to life of the unborn child.
Paris and Galea will send the document, called ‘Dear Decision Makers’, to MPs in the coming days.
Human right to bodily autonomy is lost the moment a person becomes pregnant
The stories were submitted to the campaign, which is being supported by Break the Taboo Malta, by women of various ages.
Some were unable to access safe abortions, while others who had the financial means and support systems said they still suffered the stigma.
COVID-19 made their situation even more challenging due to travel restrictions, a rise in domestic violence and a decrease in the availability of contraceptives.
Paris and Galea hope the first-hand accounts will help lawmakers understand the “gravity” of their actions, or lack of.
“When you read their stories, do not read them in isolation of their socially and legally constructed predicament. These stories, undoubtedly, are a direct consequence of Malta’s blanket ban on abortion. They are a result of your complacency and complicity.
“In this country, the human right to bodily autonomy is lost the moment a person becomes pregnant. Despite being a living, fully actualised human being, it is not uncommon for such individuals to be treated as lesser than their own pregnancies,” Paris and Galea sign the call for action.
1 out of 5 required abortion due to complications, health issues
One in every five women who shared her story said they required an abortion due to pregnancy complications or other physical health issues such as cancer, endometriosis or ectopic pregnancies.
One in every 10 was pregnant with a foetus with severe abnormalities or one that was non-compatible with life.
Healthcare professionals were also among those who submitted their account.
They said they felt helpless as they were unable to provide adequate care, while half said they were aware of women conducting dangerous self-induced abortions at home.
A gynaecologist told the campaign that every week they saw about two or three women struggling for help, up from once a month before the pandemic.
“One particular lady had just been diagnosed with a serious congenital abnormality. The diagnosis was suspected on ultrasound and confirmed by further testing. She had been told there was nothing that could be done to help her in Malta.”
Another healthcare professional noted that the number of women turning up in the emergency department with incomplete miscarriages was getting noticeably higher.
These women, they added, would not admit to having taken abortion pills, for fear of being criminalised.
* Not her real name
'As the baby was growing, so was the cancer'
“When I went for my scan, I was found to have a huge cancerous fibroid and large uterus. As the baby was growing, so was the cancer. I read women saying that they would rather die than abort. My thoughts were with my two other children rather than with the foetus. The choice to abort wasn’t just ours as a couple, but the cancer – it was killing me and the foetus.”
'Willing to harm themselves'
“I have seen women so desperate to terminate their pregnancy they were willing to harm themselves. They’ve disclosed to me that they tried to drink far too much alcohol than is good for them, engaged in risky behaviour like overspeeding in the hope that they would crash, or took a cocktail of tablets, risking overdose – all the while scared that family members or partners would notice what they were doing and report them to the police.”