As an expat, you might be baffled to learn that this question is a very valid one in Malta. Up until recently, Malta was the only European Union country where women had no access to emergency contraception, not even in case of rape.
Yet, times are changing. These past months, Malta has been in the midst of turmoil, as news and social media sites (Related: Getting Social: Must-Join Facebook Groups for Expats in Malta) have been filled with one specific subject almost daily. And no, it’s not traffic jams or cute cats. It’s the infamous morning-after pill that has the residence of the tiny Maltese rock split in half.
Sure, You Can Get the Pill.. But Only if the Doctor Says So
Months of discussions first lead to the MPs announcing on 4th October the suggestion that a doctor’s prescription should be required in order to obtain the pill.
This decision triggered a lot more questions than it created answers. Concerns were voiced by common citizens and MEPs alike. “Would it not defy the whole concept of “emergency”, if you needed to get an appointment with the doctor beforehand?” was a very obvious question in people’s minds.
In addition, another came to mind: “So, what is it exactly that the doctor could ask you to determine whether you are eligible for the pill?” This, of course leads to plenty of assumptions how it could go down.
“Hello, miss, come in. So, you are here to have a prescription for the morning-after pill. Let’s see… Are you taking any other medication? Do you have any previous conditions that could be of concern regarding the pill? Oh, and also, are you one of those loose women using the morning-after pill as a regular birth control method?”
Obviously, this announcement had most of the nation up in arms, one way or another. Seems the MPs making the decision forgot who they were deciding on behalf of. Maltese women are strong, smart and very opinionated. Even implying that they are not intelligent or trustworthy enough to make decisions regarding their own lives and bodies (especially when most of their European counterparts are free to do so), will most definitely cause an uprising. Hell, any woman would slap you for such an implication, Maltese or not, and would be right in doing so.
don’t forget, no sex on Saturday, because you would find no doctors on Sunday morning to help you
To add insult to injury, if you were to go by this requirement of a doctor’s prescription, you would first need to manage to get an appointment, and quick. That would probably also require you to take a few hours off work, seeing how an appointment at, for example, 10 AM does not mean you actually get to see the doctor at that time. You would then need to pay a fee for the visit, because you would have obviously needed to go to a private facility, due to the urgency of the situation.
You would, of course, also have to endure the “stink eye” from the doctor, as well as the pharmacist, assuming you had gotten consent from the doctor in the first place. Also, don’t forget, no sex on Saturday, because you would find no doctors on Sunday morning to help you.
Is the Pill Abortive or Not?
Now, there are plenty who would argue that it is not their lives and bodies women are deciding on in this case. The definition of when exactly life begins is the main (actually, the only) argument that those opposing the pill have.
The key claim tends to be that the morning-after pill is abortive, because it may, amongst other actions, create a hostile environment for the already fertilised egg so implantation can’t take place. According to the claim, the fertilized egg is just as much a human as is any of us and has the same rights. Think about it though, that means some people are assigning more rights to this one cell than to refugees seeking asylum from war and destruction. Rights for life on equal terms with others.
Laying down the point of when exactly life begins is really a matter of opinion. I would personally argue it is not even possible to state that exact moment, since it’s a process, rather than a blink of an eye kind of a situation.
Whether the pill is abortive or not seems to be a matter of opinion as well, even though the World Health Organization has very clearly stated it is not. But let us, for a moment, entertain the hypothesis that life does begin at the speculative point of when the egg is fertilized and that after that point, any effects of a pill would be abortive.
The fastest sperm can, theoretically, reach the egg within about half an hour. That’s probably something only Michael Phelps’ sperm can brag about, though – others would really fall somewhere in between 30 minutes and 12 hours. From the point the sperm reaches the egg, the complex process of penetrating and merging its genetic code with the egg’s takes about another 16 hours.
There you go, a solution! Allowing women quick access to emergency contraception would give them a chance to avoid unwanted pregnancy without worrying whether they’re stepping over the hazy line of an abortion or not.
Emergency, You Say? In That Case, Sure, Have It!
Such a short deadline is, of course, extremely difficult to meet, if you need to also meet a doctor to be allowed to purchase the morning-after (!) pill.
Following that logic, hundreds of stern statements, and a petition and a protest later, the decision was finally taken on 17th October. As announced by Malta Medicines Authority chief Anthony Serracino Inglott, the infamous pill will be allowed to be sold over the counter without the need for a doctor’s prescription.
With that decision, Malta finally got out of the shameful list of those countries who have not allowed their women the freedom of choice. Previously, we were noted alongside places like North Korea, Papua New Guinea, South Sudan and some others well known for their approach on women’s rights.
On paper, it’s great news, right?
In reality, unfortunately, it will be a while until buying the pill will become realistically possible. For one, when announcing the news, Seraccino Inglott, unfortunately “could not commit, however, to a time-frame when emergency contraception will be available in pharmacies, putting it down to marketing authorisation holders.”
And then there is, of course, the aspect that once all the bureaucracy is sorted, you’re still stuck trying to find out which pharmacies do stock it and which don’t.
The most difficult part of all will be overcoming the stigma. It will be a while until women don’t need to attend a pharmacy on the other side of the island, where fewer people know them. Wait for the pharmacy to be empty in order to avoid the whispers from the two old ladies behind them in the queue. Get judgmental looks from the pharmacist who is supposed to help and support them, not condemn them.
Throughout all the controversy though, it’s a powerful statement Maltese women have made, taking a stand and demanding the rights that most expats and tourists are already accustomed to back in their homeland.
The availability of the pill is not forcing anyone to take it. It is, however, allowing women a choice that they rightfully should have. Be brave, ladies, and do what is right for you!