Malta and Ireland: Should marriage equality open the door to abortion rights?

By Aoife Hamill 

Earlier this week, Malta’s parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage by 66-1. The move follows Ireland’s referendum to introduce marriage equality in 2015. But that’s not the only thing the two countries have in common.

While LGBT rights have progressed in both states - they are still home to draconian abortion laws.

Terminations are illegal in Malta in all circumstances. In Ireland, abortion is only permitted if doctors are satisfied the mother’s life is at immediate risk.  

Medical professionals, who perform abortions in Malta, face a prison sentence of up to four years. The consenting person can be jailed for three years. In Ireland, women face 14 years imprisonment if they procure an abortion. Both states outlaw terminations even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities.

Although terminations are illegal in Ireland - pregnant people are allowed to leave the country for abortions elsewhere. Around 3,500 do so every year.  

In Malta the situation is less clear. While Maltese law does not explicitly state that people cannot leave to access abortions, a woman called Nadezda Gavrilova was reportedly stopped by police for ‘seeking an abortion’ abroad in 2003. However, UK Department of Health statistics for 2016 state 58 women, who received abortion care in England and Wales, named Malta as their country of residence.

There’s no doubt both Ireland and Malta’s laws unfairly punish people, dealing with unwanted or unviable pregnancies. But change might be afoot in both regions thanks to the work of campaigners.

A referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which bans abortion, is expected early next year. It is hoped this will pass, paving the way for the liberalisation of abortion laws.

In Malta activists are hopeful too. In 2016, women's rights campaigner Francesca Fenech Conti told the BBC that new conversations will encourage change in Malta.

"There will be changes soon - that we are even having this conversation is evidence. A year and a half ago I couldn't discuss these issues with my own sister and cousin - now we talk about it all the time," she said. 

Ms Conti also stated that she had spoken with Irish campaigners about working towards pro-choice rights.

“I'm in touch with campaigners in Ireland and Poland [where campaigners are challenging abortion laws]. It will happen."

In both Ireland and Malta - marriage equality has morphed from taboo to basic right. It remains to be seen if the same can happen with abortion. Polls about reproductive rights continue to show increased support for the pro-choice side.  We are hopeful governments will begin to take note, and act accordingly.

Hannah Little