VALLETTA, Malta -- Abortion rights activists filed a legal protest in Malta’s courts on Wednesday demanding the legalization of abortion in the only European Union member where the procedure is criminalized.
Toting banners reading “I decide,” “Abortion is a woman’s right” and “Abortion is health care, not a crime,” the activists protested on the steps of Valletta’s legal courts after filing the complaint.
The petition by the Women's Rights Foundation names the Maltese health minister, parliament’s secretary for equality and reforms and the state advocate in asserting that the country's absolute ban on abortion violates the fundamental human rights of Maltese women of child-bearing age.
The filing doesn’t automatically lead to a court case, but the Women's Rights Foundation filed a judicial protest six years ago as part of an ultimately successful campaign to legalize emergency contraception in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country.
The activists said Wednesday that if there is no response to their initial judicial protest, they would launch a court case and would be prepared to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. Their case has been bolstered since the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner recently found that Malta’s blanket abortion ban puts the rights of its women “at significant risk.”
“We hope we will have a response from the respective ministries and the state,” said Lara Dimitrijevic, founder and director of the Women’s Rights Foundation, during Wednesday's protest.
The Mediterranean island nation of Malta is one of the few Western states that has a total ban on abortion, after the republic of San Marino decriminalized the procedure last year and other overwhelmingly Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy have legalized it. Poland recently introduced a near-total ban on abortions, but it doesn’t foresee criminal charges against the woman, although they can be filed against the doctor who performs one and others who assist her.
The issue has grown more visible in Malta given reports that the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn the landmark decision that legalized abortions nationwide.
Activists in Malta filed the petition on behalf of 188 people who support abortion rights, including women who have had abortions abroad, been forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term or could get pregnant in the future and want the right to be able to terminate a pregnancy.
At the protest, activists said the prohibition has had a direct impact on the quality of their lives. They said they are being discriminated against, forced to live in fear if they have had the procedure and deprived of their fundamental right to medical care if they are denied it.
"Among us there are persons who were raped or sexually abused, and were terrified that a pregnancy would result from that abuse, knowing full well that instead of finding support they would find condemnation if they had an abortion,” activists said in a statement read aloud at the protest.
Malta was criticized by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, over its abortion policy. In a February report, Mijatović said that “unimpeded access to sexual and reproductive health care” is critical to preserving a woman’s right to health and her right to be free from discrimination.
“Malta’s blanket ban on abortions puts these rights at significant risk,” she said.
She “strongly urged" Maltese authorities to repeal provisions criminalizing abortion and to develop women’s access to legal and safe abortion.