While the transformation of deeply Roman Catholic Malta to a pro-choice nation may seem like an unassailable reality, a group of doctors have come together to push a critical discussion over the decriminalisation of abortion to the mainstream.
“Do you actually want to send young Maltese women to prison for getting abortions?” Medical Doctor Alexander Clayman posed during a Lovin Malta interview.
The vocal spokesperson behind ‘Doctor’s for Choice’, Dr Clayman holds a strong belief that current Maltese legislation on abortion that treats women as criminals is “draconian”.
As it stands, a woman who willingly gets an abortion would be liable to a prison term for 18 months to three years. Three women in Malta have been charged with performing an abortion on themselves since 2000.
“A lot of pro-lifers consistently say that we shouldn’t be judgemental, but if you want to send someone to prison, then that is passing absolute judgement over the issue,” Clayman explained.
“Statistics show that around 50 Maltese women go to the UK to get an abortion, do you think they should all go to prison?”
“If a woman came up to you and said that she was considering an abortion? Who would you go to, the Police? Or would you go to a doctor?”
The simmering of a discussion surrounding abortion has slowly come to surface as Malta radically shifted from a conservative country yet to introduce divorce to an EU leader in civil liberties.
Both main parties have been steadfast in announcing their positions against abortion, with the country’s newly crowned President, George Vella, saying he would step down if he were ever asked to sign such a bill.
Meanwhile, smaller parties have fragmented over the issue, with Arnold Cassola leaving Alternattiva Demokratika after MEP Candidate Mina Tolu suggested an informed discussion on the subject.
A lack of social will also exists, with surveys consistently showing that the overwhelming majority of Maltese residents strongly disagree with the practice.
Challenged on this, Clayman acknowledged that the country won’t merely become a pro-choice nation in a matter of weeks, but this was only due to severe lack of public education on the subject.
“We’ve been stifled by religion and insular society,” he continued. “Public education will only improve the situation as people begin to realise that abortion is not murder and there are genuine reasons why people need them.”
“Abortion isn’t a good thing, it isn’t a nice thing, but neither is a colonoscopy. It’s all about the cost and benefits of a particular case. If a woman’s physical, mental, or social health is at risk, perhaps her life is more important than the life of an embryo.”
‘Doctors for Choice‘, which currently has 37 medical professionals under its wing, drew its inspiration from a similar movement in Ireland, which has identical strong Catholic roots.
“Often, it’s a woman who isn’t a doctor that speaks about the issue, only to be immediately pushed aside. With doctors talking about it, maybe the conversation can be taken more seriously.”
The announcement of the group brought forward the usually expected criticism, with commenters immediately suspecting that nefarious foreigners were behind the campaign. However, Clayman made clear that each one of the 37 doctors currently part of the group was Maltese.
“I also want to make it clear that no one is getting any money from this in any way, shape, or form,” he said. “Actually, the private doctors who are part of the group stand to lose the most with anti-choice campaigners repeatedly saying that they would not use them.”
“It’s also unfair to call us an anonymous group. The pro-life groups don’t publish their members’ lists… the Labour Party and Nationalist Party don’t publish their membership lists… all people wanted to do was turn this into a witch-hunt.”
It’s telling, however, that Clayman forms part of just four doctors who have made their affiliation with the group known. Clayman expressed his regret, but said that he understood the professional realities surrounding the issue.
A common argument against the introduction of pro-choice legislation is a “reap-what-you-sow” mentality with regards to unsafe sexual promiscuity.
“If they’ve experienced everyday life, they certainly have no empathy for it. Life can be sticky, tricky, and complex,” Clayman questioned.
He then explained that he could understand that argument if contraception was free.
“When it comes to promoting prevention, it’s vital that contraception is free, as is the case with vaccinations,” he said. “Condoms aren’t free, the morning after pill isn’t free, and an IUD isn’t free.”
Critics often claim that reproductive rights can sometimes be seen as a squarely women’s issue, in effect alienating an entire gender despite their own role in conception.
Clayman disagrees, stressing that while men’s opinions are valid in the debate, he said he actually thinks it’s women’s voices on the subject that were being side-lined:
“It’s hard to stand up by yourself sometimes in a hostile environment when it’s mostly middle-class men who are shouting the loudest.”
“I know my privilege, and we have pro-choice female doctors, but none of them were willing to speak publicly. I don’t think I’m the ideal candidate to do this, but someone has to do it.”