An American woman in Malta is set to be air-lifted out of the country on Thursday, after seeking an abortion amid emergency, life-threatening pregnancy complications, and being denied care due to the country’s stringent abortion ban. Malta’s laws offer no exceptions to this ban for any reason, rendering it the strictest in the European Union.
The American woman, Andrea Prudente, was on vacation with her partner in the country, and was 16 weeks pregnant when she started bleeding heavily and learned her fetus would not survive. Still, a hospital in Valletta, Malta, insisted that it would not provide her with an abortion or even discuss the procedure with her until she was imminently dying. Of course, medical experts have long argued that waiting until the pregnant person’s life is at stake to provide abortion care is extremely medically risky—if the government were actually concerned with pregnant people’s safety, abortion wouldn’t be banned at all.
Prudente and her husband immediately sought a medical transfer from Malta to the UK where abortion is legal, citing concerns about the risk to Prudente’s life. Following several days of terror and uncertainty, the couple has finally secured an emergency air-lift via their travel insurance to obtain an abortion in Mallorca, Spain, Maltese media reports. Prior to securing the airlift, Prudente told The Guardian she just wanted to “get out of here alive,” and added, “I couldn’t in my wildest dreams have thought up a nightmare like this.”
In a Tuesday Facebook post detailing Prudente’s story, Doctors for Choice Malta referenced the case of Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis in 2012 when Irish doctors refused to perform a life-saving abortion for similar reasons prior to the legalization of abortion in Ireland in 2018. The group claimed harrowing experiences like Prudente’s aren’t uncommon in Malta: “We have also heard from Maltese women who were in similar situations but were scared to speak out. This is not right. Women have beating hearts too!” And notably, not all pregnant people will be able to be air-lifted to another country for abortion care.
When a dead or unviable fetus remains in the uterus, the pregnant person is at risk of sepsis—an extreme, life-threatening response to infection—among other possibly fatal health risks. Prudente was at even greater risk, because she had been diagnosed with a ruptured membrane, and her umbilical cord was protruding from her cervix, increasing the threat of hemorrhage and infection, per The Guardian. Prudente had also just tested positive for covid.
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Nonetheless, in countries with abortion bans like Malta, doctors who fear criminalization and imprisonment decline to offer abortion care even in circumstances like Prudente’s, or they wait too long, leading to the pregnant person’s death. Abortion bans also discourage pregnant people who experience possibly fatal complications from even seeking the help of a doctor, because pregnancy outcomes like miscarriage—which can’t be distinguished from abortion pills—could be investigated and prosecuted as abortions.
In January, a pregnant woman in Poland, where abortion is banned on threat of imprisonment, faced a similar pregnancy-related emergency to Prudente’s. When doctors denied her life-saving abortion care, she was forced to carry a dead fetus in her womb for a full week before dying of infection. The Polish hospital claimed it had “taken all possible and required actions to save the lives of the children and the patient”—but, of course, it had been referring to the woman’s twin fetuses, and not her three living children. Her death came just months after another Polish woman who was denied abortion care also died of pregnancy complications.
While abortion remains legal in the US for now, the Supreme Court is poised to reverse Roe v. Wade any day now, opening the door for dozens of states to immediately ban and criminalize abortion care. When providing abortion is a crime, stories like Prudente’s and the aforementioned Polish women’s will become all too common—this is the fate that states like Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Michigan, which have introduced or passed legislation to threaten abortion providers with 10 to 15 years in prison, are rapidly propelling us toward.
Criminalization doesn’t just re-traumatize and further compound the suffering of someone who’s just experienced a miscarriage of stillbirth—as we’re already seeing in countries with total abortion bans, like Malta, this can place pregnant people’s lives at risk if hospitals deny them care, or if they’re too afraid to even see a doctor. Here in the US, women like Purvi Patel and Lizelle Herrera both arrested and incarcerated for alleged self-managed abortions after their own doctors reported them to police, when they came to seek care.
Cases like this, in the US and abroad, remind us that as if banning abortion and reducing pregnant people to state incubators isn’t terrifying enough, the consequences will ripple out to place all pregnancies at risk. When providing abortion, losing a pregnancy, or experiencing an unviable one can all warrant investigation and prosecution, no one is safe.