VALETTA, Malta—Maria Borg stood with five other women outside the prime minister’s office here on a recent day, holding a banner that read: Welcome to Malta, where women and girls are just incubators.
The women, part of an abortion-rights collective called Voice for Choice, were welcoming European leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, who were attending a Southern European Union summit. As the women stood in silence under the hot Mediterranean sun for more than two hours, various people stopped by in support—many of them tourists. The demonstration was live-streamed on Facebook and was covered by all the major local outlets.
To anyone outside Malta, this demonstration would seem insignificant. But for the island, a stronghold for the Catholic Church, it was substantial—one of the few abortion-rights protests in the country’s history.
Before the protest, Borg had never publicly come out as a supporter of the right to terminate a pregnancy, and she wasn’t sure how her family and friends, who oppose it, would react when they saw her face in photos circulating on social media afterward. But their response, she says, was overwhelmingly positive. Online, however, it was different. One Facebook comment threatened to “shoot these bitches in the head one by one facing each other,” referring to the six protesters.
“I was initially nervous,” says Borg, 22, who’s using a pseudonym for fear of online harassment and repercussions. “In Malta, you’re afraid to say you’re pro-choice. But I believe in the cause and wanted to act. These other countries [visiting for the summit] fought for abortion in the 1960s and ’70s. They need to know that now, 50 years later, we still don’t have it.”
Malta is the only European country that outright bans abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, or in some cases, where the woman’s health is at risk. It has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world; a woman who terminates her pregnancy and the doctor who facilitates that procedure can each face up to three years in prison. Other places in Europe with restrictive reproductive-rights laws, such as Northern Ireland and Poland, allow abortions in certain situations where the woman’s health is at risk (in Poland, the law also allows abortions in cases of rape and incest).
Information about reproductive health care in Malta is limited: Abortion-rights activists say the type of sexual education taught in schools depends on the teacher, which often leads to some instructors speaking out against the termination of a pregnancy. Although condoms are sold in pharmacies and supermarkets, the birth-control pill is only available with a doctor’s prescription. The morning-after pill was legalized in 2016, but pharmacists can refrain from selling it based on their “moral stance.”
But even in Malta, where a substantial majority opposes abortion rights, public perception toward terminating a pregnancy is slowly shifting, mirroring the changes in other parts of Europe where it was illegal until recently. The most prominent example of this is Ireland, which last year legalized abortion after making same-sex marriage legal in 2015. That pace of change has been rapid for a country like Ireland, which only lifted its ban on divorce in 1995. Supporters of abortion rights hope that Malta’s trajectory will follow suit: Like Ireland, Malta was slow to legalize divorce (2011) and same-sex marriage (2017). And over the past 18 months, abortion rights have gained momentum, led in large part by the Women’s Rights Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers legal advice and support on a range of women’s issues.
“The situation has changed very fast, especially after the Irish referendum,” says Andreana Dibben, the chair of the organization and a professor of social policy at the University of Malta.
On March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day, Dibben’s foundation became the first feminist organization in Malta to publicly announce its support for abortion rights and actively advocate for abortion as part of a woman’s reproductive health. It set in motion a chain of events: An abortion-rights coalition of seven NGOs created Voice for Choice in March 2018; the Abortion Support Network, which previously helped Irish women travel to the U.K. for abortions, extended its services to Malta this February; and the advocacy group Doctors for Choice was founded in May.
Yet the number of people in Malta who support abortion rights is still small, Dibben says. An online poll from 2018 showed that 95 percent of Maltese people are against legalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; that same poll showed that 27 percent of people were against it if the mother’s health was at risk.
“From when you are young, from when you are a child, you go to school and you learn that abortion is murder,” Dibben says, referring to the general view of abortion on the island. “And that is a widespread notion that you don’t even challenge.”
Hundreds of women living in Malta travel overseas for an abortion each year, spending more than $1,000 (the abortion alone can cost about $500). Because the procedure is done abroad—usually in Britain or in Italy—women receive no follow-up appointments. These short trips are often done alone and in secret, or under false pretexts, in large part because abortion is still such a taboo. Abortion-rights activists say some women illegally order abortion pills online, which are safe to use up until the tenth week of pregnancy.
But understanding why Malta has such strict views on abortion in the first place is more complicated. Many of the people I spoke with, from activists to doctors to bartenders, said Maltese people simply don’t like to speak up against the status quo; some pointed to the country’s position as a small island in the Mediterranean Sea, geographically isolated from the rest of the world and therefore less likely to be exposed to other countries and ideas. But everybody agreed on one thing: the influence of the Catholic Church.
It’s hard not to come across the small ceramic icons of the Virgin Mary hanging outside people’s homes in Malta, or the statues of saints standing over passersby on various street corners. Cars driving past usually have a cross dangling from their rearview window. In all, Malta has about 365 churches, “one church for every day of the year,” as one waitress put it, and the country’s national identity is very much tied to that.
“Our social, cultural background is very firmly rooted in a Catholic doctrine,” Dibben says. “We still have in our constitution that Malta is a Roman Catholic country.”
One gynecologist in Malta, speaking on condition of anonymity because her career could be at risk if she came out publicly as supportive of abortion rights, said the number of women who have approached her with questions or concerns after getting an abortion (either abroad or by taking the pill) has increased in recent years—she receives at least one visit every week.
“Part of my job is to support women and give them options,” she told me over the phone. “My personal view is that abortion should be the last option. We should focus on the morning-after pill, on sex education, on contraception. But when all else fails, abortion should be available.”
Malta’s abortion-rights movement is still small, but it has sparked a nationwide discussion. Local media, which previously were reluctant to discuss “the A-word,” as some people in Malta refer to it, are covering the issue more often. It’s even gained more of a presence in the political sphere: During Malta’s European Parliament elections this May, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat from the center-left Labor Party said that abortion is “a very serious subject about which the Maltese deserve a sober discussion,” though he hasn’t publicly discussed his stance on it.
Adrian Delia, the leader of the conservative Nationalist Party and a supporter of Malta’s abortion ban, told me that one of the biggest issues during the European election was “the emphasis of having pro-life choices.”
“We certainly need to protect the most vulnerable, who don’t have a voice of their own, who can’t stand up on their own, who need more and not less protection, and that’s the unborn child,” Delia said.
Just a couple of weeks after her first abortion-rights demonstration, Borg, the young activist, recounted the details of that day to me in the hot and stuffy second-floor office of the grassroots collective Movement for Graffiti, one of the NGOs taking part in Voice for Choice. Borg smiled shyly as I asked her questions, but when she spoke, she did so with earnestness and passion.
“I want the situation to get better not just for me, but for other women,” said Borg, who’s in the process of creating an organization of young abortion-rights activists to branch off the Women’s Rights Foundation. She wants the emergence of abortion-rights groups to encourage others to feel safe expressing their views, and says the movement is in need of more youth voices.
“We need a change of perspective, but it will be a slow process because we’re very indoctrinated,” she added. “For now, we need to focus on decriminalizing abortion; I think that may happen soon. But legalizing abortion will take longer. Hopefully it’ll happen within my lifetime.”