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Consider abortion essential healthcare - CoE Commissioner for Human Rights

In a statement issued on 27 April 2020, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights expressed her concern that the COVID-19 crisis and ensuing restrictions are complicating access to essential sexual and reproductive health information, services and goods for women and girls.

The statement states that: "This situation is particularly worrying for women and girls who live in the few European states where abortion is illegal or severely restricted and who  cannot travel abroad to seek assistance and care, as reported in Malta."

The statement goes on to say that in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Council of Europe member states (which includes Malta) must:

  • ensure full access to sexual and reproductive health care information, services and goods for all women without discrimination, and with specific attention for women at risk or victims of gender-based violence and other vulnerable groups of women;

  • consider access to abortion care, contraception, including emergency contraception, and maternal healthcare before, during and after childbirth, as essential health care services to be maintained during the crisis and take all necessary accompanying measures;

  • in particular: urgently remove all residual barriers preventing access to safe abortion care such as medically unjustified mandatory waiting periods; authorise telehealth consultations where appropriate and provision of emergency contraception over the counter without a prescription;

  • address misinformation, gender stigma and norms that affect women’s access to reliable, evidence-based information on their sexual and reproductive rights;

  • ensure that refusals of care on grounds of conscience do not jeopardise women’s access to their sexual and reproductive health and rights;

  • follow WHO guidelines on access to health care for pregnant and breastfeeding women during the pandemic and guarantee women’s informed consent and decision-making in the context of childbirth at all times;

  • prevent any legislative or policy rolling-back in the field of women’s sexual and reproductive rights;

  • support women’s rights defenders, service providers such as health care staff, shelters for women victims of violence, family planning organisations and humanitarian assistance workers by enabling them to continue playing their essential role in assisting women during the pandemic.

This statement is particularly significant coming from the Commissioner for Human Rights, especially when one considers that Malta is a signatory to the Council of Europe's European Convention on Human Rights. It reinforces the belief that women in Malta are being denied their fundamental human rights, more so now that abortion is even harder to access.

We once again urge Malta's policy makers to stop digging their heels in and accept that women in Malta need access to safe, legal abortion. As an organisation we are aware of many women being driven to desperation by the travel ban, and this issue cannot be ignored any longer. With the pandemic unlikely to be coming to an end any time soon, Malta cannot hope to continue relying on other countries to provide the abortion services Maltese women need. Safe, legal abortion needs to be available locally.

By Dr Chris Barbara


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