An American woman who experienced life-threatening pregnancy complications and was denied an abortion in Malta is now suing the country, challenging its total abortion ban by arguing it’s a breach of human rights. The woman, Andrea Prudente, and her partner, Jay Weeldreyer, were on vacation in the country in June to celebrate Prudente’s pregnancy. This took a turn when, at about 16 weeks pregnant, Prudente began bleeding heavily and learned her fetus would not survive. Despite this, a hospital in Valletta, Malta, said it would not provide her with an emergency abortion or even discuss the procedure with her until her death was imminent.
Prudente eventually had to be airlifted out of Malta by her insurance company. She and her partner were taken to Spain, where abortion is legal, to have the procedure. At the time, Doctors for Choice, an abortion rights group of medical professionals in Malta, said the abortion ban had put Prudente at risk of fatal infection and death.
“The plaintiff had no other option but to wait until her body went into labour, a process that could take weeks or months, and therefore had to seek treatment abroad because her life and health were at risk,” states an application filed to the First Hall of the Civil Court on Sept. 22 by Prudente’s lawyer, Dr. Lara Dimitrijevic. Prudente is asking the court to declare the two articles of the country’s criminal code that ban abortion as a violation of Malta’s Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Malta notably holds the strictest abortion ban in Europe.
“This is not pro life,” Prudente told Vice World News on Tuesday of the country’s ban. “The law parades under the banner of ‘pro-life,’ but in some situations there’s only one, and it’s the mothers, like mine, where there’s no chance the baby can survive.” Further, she told the outlet that upon reviewing her medical records, she learned that despite being sent a grief counselor because the fetus was dead, and despite the fact that her pregnancy complications were characterized as a miscarriage, she was still denied an abortion.
Prudente’s lawsuit against the Maltese government is the first of its kind to challenge the country’s abortion ban for violating human rights. At a Sunday protest in Valletta, local media called it the largest abortion rights rally to take place at the capital, and one doctor reportedly took an abortion pill in front of the crowd. As public support for abortion rights increases throughout the country, it seems like the tide might be turning—but it shouldn’t have taken Prudente almost dying to create change.
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According to Prudente, local activists told her at least four Maltese pregnant people, on average, are forced into similar situations each year, in which they experience severe pregnancy complications but are denied emergency abortion care. But intense abortion stigma in the country prevents these individuals from speaking out. Prudente wants her lawsuit to help them, too. “I don’t have that same cultural pressure, taboo, or shame,” she told Vice. “I feel strongly that I was a victim of a law that harms women and that I’m in a unique position as an outsider to speak up and stand up and shine a light on this thing which feels wrong.” Weeldreyer told the outlet he’d “like to see justice, an acknowledgement of this harm, that Andrea was harmed by the state.”
When someone is forced to carry a dead fetus for a prolonged amount of time, they’re at risk of fatal infections like sepsis—we’ve seen as much in Poland, just earlier this year. Here in the U.S., there have already been numerous cases like that of a Louisiana woman who was recently forced to carry a skull-less, unviable fetus. Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, a Texas woman was forced to carry a dead fetus for two weeks before she could get care. That Prudente’s pregnancy complications were quite literally classified as a miscarriage is also a grim reminder that because there’s virtually no medical distinction between many abortions and miscarriages, states with abortion bans have effectively banned miscarriage, too.
Doctors—in the U.S. and abroad—deny patients abortion care because they fear criminalization and imprisonment. As a result, in countries where providing abortion or experiencing pregnancy complications like Prudente’s can lead to investigation and prosecution, no one is safe.