I became a mother when I was 17 years old. My pregnancy was not planned and despite being young and unmarried, the thought of getting an abortion never crossed my mind.
Growing up in Malta, I had strong feelings against abortion and I wanted to be a mother from the day of my positive pregnancy result. The first time I questioned my stance on abortion was more than two years later. At the time, I was an undergraduate student at the University reading for a degree in social work and I was invited to give an interview in a local newspaper on my experience as a young student mother.
As it happened, on the opposite page from my interview, the journalist had interviewed a young woman my age who had also got pregnant round the same time but who had gone through an abortion. But while there was a large smiling photo of myself with my daughter on the page and I had no qualms about disclosing my name, the other young woman’s story did not have a photograph and her name had been changed to protect her identity.
While my story was portrayed as positive and full of hope, a story of courage and overcoming adversity, the other young woman spoke about the difficult circumstances of her pregnancy, the lack of support she experienced, the difficulties in accessing abortion services, the lonely experience of someone who was barely an adult getting on a ferry to Sicily on their own, being fearful each step of the way and the knowledge that she could never disclose this experience to anyone in her life.
Reading that story, I kept thinking about how she must have felt reading my interview next to hers. I knew in my heart that I could easily have been her. Ultimately, terminating the pregnancy did not occur to me because I had numerous people supporting me: my family, my boyfriend (who later became my husband), his parents, my friends and my teachers at school.
I also had good physical and mental health and was imbued with the naivety of youth that ironically gave me the resilience to believe that I could handle any situation.
That girl had not been so lucky: her parents would have thrown her out, her boyfriend disappeared the minute she told him about the pregnancy, she had nobody to confide in, her work situation was fragile and she had suffered from anxiety and depression in her adolescence.
My subsequent studies with teenage mothers and my social work practice with various disadvantaged women and children opened my eyes further to the harsh realities that women, especially mothers in our society, face and since then, I have been acutely aware of my privilege.
Throughout my career, much of my advocacy and research efforts have been focused on promoting respect for all mothers irrespective of their circumstances and for ‘mother work’ to be acknowledged as a central human activity that should be supported by all institutions in society.
While some might see this position as contradictory to my pro-choice stance, I see it as perfectly complimentary because ultimately being pro-choice is about acknowledging that it is the woman who knows her own circumstances and who is best placed to make decisions about pregnancy and motherhood.
My pro-choice stance solidified in my early years of social work practice as I encountered women who had suffered tremendous abuse and who were forced into pregnancy year after year, others who had induced their own abortion (sometimes unsuccessfully) and the horrendous consequences of forced pregnancy and motherhood.
I am pro-choice because I am a mother. I am pro-choice because I am a social worker. I am pro-choice because I am a social policy academic. And I am pro-choice because I believe in human rights and social justice.
Absolute right to life from conception reduces the unique nature of our human life to our genetic material
For me, the arguments for choice are very clear. First, no woman should be treated as a criminal and risk a prison sentence for having an abortion. Even the anti-abortion organisations acknowledge that women who have had abortions should not be vilified, yet they support a law that considers these women as criminals.
Secondly, Malta’s blanket ban goes against the UN Committee for Human Rights that states that abortion should be legal at least to safeguard a woman’s health, in cases of rape or incest and in cases of fatal foetal anomalies.
The stories of suffering I’ve heard from doctors and women who have been in difficult situations should never be allowed in a developed country that claims to safeguard human rights. There are European Court of Human Rights cases that have ruled that such circumstances are akin to degrading and inhumane treatment against pregnant women.
Third, research shows clearly that banning abortion simply does not work. The rates of abortion are highest in countries where access is restricted while they have declined at a steady pace in all developed countries where abortion is safe and legal.
These countries have acknowledged that the only effective way to prevent abortion is to invest heavily in sex education and access to contraception. In Malta, what the abortion ban is doing is simply creating a situation where those who can travel can access abortion safely in other countries while those who cannot are resorting to unsafe practices.
The women who cannot travel are some of the most vulnerable in our society: the poor, the ones in controlling and abusive relationships, those with care responsibilities, those who are minors and those whose legal status impedes travel.
And the sad reality is that due to the current legal situation, we simply cannot know the exact rates, the demographics or the circumstances of women who seek abortions.
We do not know whether there are backstreet clinics, what is really happening in Sicily, the type and quality of abortion inducing pills women and girls are using locally, whether they are using them safely or not, or the frequency of botched abortions.
We do not know about the cases where abortion would be the best medical option, yet is not even considered by our local doctors due to our legal situation. And how can one have effective policies and services, if the only knowledge and data we have comes from hushed and whispered stories from women and girls or from health professionals who are scared to speak out due to potential criminal liability or the stigma attached to the pro-choice position?
All these arguments might be considered irrelevant if abortion were truly ‘murder’. But this is the crux of the argument. All major world health and human rights institutions recognise access to abortion as an essential health service for women simply because there is a clear difference between the life of a woman – a conscious, knowing creature who is self-aware, who has hopes, cares and responsibilities of her own; and the life of a foetus that does not even know that it is alive, or even what life is.
Irrespective of what anti-abortion organisations claim, pregnancy is a long road of development and granting absolute right to life from conception reduces the unique nature of our human life to our genetic material. I can value an embryo and a foetus by virtue of its species membership and its potentiality to become a person, but still accept that however significant it is as a human life’s biological beginning, a woman’s complete life (which is so much more than a beating heart and DNA) matters more.
Comparisons between abortion and the killing of people betray a degraded sense of what it means to be human, which is why in nearly all the legal systems in the world except for the most oppressive regimes, abortion is never equated to ‘murder’.
Ultimately our choice is not whether to allow Maltese women to access abortion care or not. Maltese women have been accessing abortion and will continue doing so irrespective of the law.
The choice is about whether we want to keep our head buried in the sand, denying the realities of women or whether we want to open our eyes, gather a solid base of evidence and work towards informed sexual and reproductive health policies that safeguard women’s safety and well-being.
Andrea Dibben is a social policy academic and chairperson of Women’s Rights Foundation.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece