American woman denied abortion in Malta, left fearing for her life

An American woman has been left fearing for her life after she was denied an abortion despite suffering the symptoms of a miscarriage while on vacation in Malta, the only European Union country to ban terminations in all cases.

Andrea Prudente, 38, is 16 weeks pregnant but has been told her pregnancy will not survive after she first suffered heavy bleeding while on vacation last week. Women’s rights groups say she now faces potential infection and other serious health complications that could ultimately result in her own death.

But because of Malta’s ultrastrict laws, unchanged since the 19th century, any doctor performing an abortion there could face up to four years in prison as long as there is still a fetal heartbeat. Abortion rights activists and doctors have warned that cases like this could become more commonplace in the United States should the Supreme Court overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Prudente will now be airlifted to Spain in hopes of getting an abortion, after doctors in Malta had refused to certify her as fit to travel.

“The insurance company has finalized arrangements for them to be airlifted to Majorca. Andrea is signing herself out since Maltese medical advice is for her to stay under observation, ”the couple’s lawyer, Lara Dimitrijevic, told the Reuters news agency on Thursday.

She had been in hospital in Malta for a week, facing an agonizing daily check of her baby’s vital signs.

“I just want to get out of here alive,” she told the Guardian from the hospital Wednesday. “I could not in my wildest dreams have thought up a nightmare like this.”

Prudente’s partner, Jay Weeldreyer, 45, said the daily check of the baby’s heartbeat was “an inconceivable form of emotional and psychological torture.” He also told the Times of Malta newspaper the couple, who are from Seattle, feel they are being held “hostage.”

“We came to Malta on a babymoon. We certainly did not come for an abortion but here we are talking about saving a woman’s life,” he said.

Both the Mater Dei Hospital and the Maltese government have been contacted for comment.

The couple was on vacation on the tiny Maltese island of Gozo when Prudente began bleeding heavily June 12. Doctors said her fetal membrane was broken, leaving no amniotic fluid.

“She was told doctors can only intervene if she is imminently dying – not even getting an infection is enough. She was also told doctors can not even discuss the option of abortion with her,” said Doctors for Choice, a group that campaigns for women’s rights and abortion services.

The nongovernmental organization said the case was reminiscent of Dr. Savita Halappanavar, a dentist in Ireland who died in 2012 of septicemia following a miscarriage while 17 weeks pregnant.

Dr. Isabel Stabile, a Maltese gynecologist and Doctors for Choice member who has reviewed Prudente’s medical notes, confirmed to NBC News that Prudente’s waters broke just over a week ago and that “there is little to no amniotic fluid left in the uterus.”

“This is a case of previable, preterm, premature rupture of membranes, which occurs in under 1% of pregnancies, but has potentially serious complications, including sepsis and hemorrhage, both of which endanger women who are precluded from having an abortion,” she said.

Women in America and around the world face serious risks from declining abortion rights, said Marlene Farrugia, a former independent member of Parliament in Malta who led unsuccessful efforts to decriminalize abortion by introducing a historic bill in 2021.

“The potential rollback on reproductive rights by undercutting or reversing Roe v. Wade will have catastrophic global reverberations, particularly in countries like Malta where we are struggling even to achieve basic decriminalization of abortion,” she said.

“It is tragic that as we speak, our hospital once again has become a place where the heartbeat of an adult woman is given less value than the heartbeat of a dying unborn fetus.”

Mina Jack Tolu, a long-standing abortion rights campaigner in Malta and a committee member of the European Green Party, criticized the fact that a potentially lifesaving operation was being delayed due to the country’s strict laws.

“Unfortunately, Malta’s complete ban on abortion – a law that criminalizes doctors and would ban them from practicing their profession – is being used as an excuse to stall lifesaving procedure,” Tolu said.

“A ban on abortions, is not just about abortions, but is a ban on access to comprehensive and holistic reproductive health care.”

Support for strict abortion laws remains high in strongly Catholic Malta. When Farrugia’s reforms were being debated last year, 67% said they supported abortion remaining a criminal act, while 18% supported a change, according to one opinion poll.

Doctors for Choice estimates that at least 300 Maltese women have an abortion each year. One-third of them travel abroad to countries such as the United Kingdom or the Netherlands while the rest use abortion pills.

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