An American woman who was denied a request to terminate a non-viable pregnancy in Malta has told VICE World News she is launching a legal challenge against the island nation, claiming that its anti-abortion law is in breach of human rights.
Andrea Prudente and Jay Weeldreyer were on holiday in Malta in June for a “babymoon” to celebrate their pregnancy when Prudente began to experience problems.
At 16 weeks of pregnancy, Prudente was told by Maltese medical staff that her pregnancy was no longer viable – but the hospital refused to perform a termination as a heartbeat from the foetus was still detectable.
Malta has the strictest abortion law in Europe, completely banning the procedure in all circumstances, including rape and incest.
Prudente had lost all her amniotic fluid and the placenta had become detached, which Doctors for Choice, an abortion rights group of medical professionals on the island, said at the time put Prudente at risk of “maternal infection and death” and that “the patient is now being forced to watch and wait at Mater Dei [hospital], putting her life at risk.”
Prudente said local campaigners had told her that on average four Maltese women go through what she did every year, but that they are intimidated from ever speaking out.
“I don’t have that same cultural pressure, taboo or shame. 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,” she said in a video call with VICE World News.
Weeldreyer added: “Each day, between noon and 2, they’d check for the heartbeat. And then they would also focus on Andrea’s temperature and blood, and the daily antibiotics. You’re sitting there thinking ‘that’s our baby,’ but it’s another day of heartbreak. Every day having this crash of losing your baby again, and also every day possibly losing Andrea.
“Maybe some of the people in Malta who are very hardline in their positions can hear this stuff and maybe have their hearts softened. It’s less clear than they currently feel it is. I’d like to see justice, an acknowledgement of this harm, that Andrea was harmed by the state.”
Eventually Prudente had to be airlifted via her travel insurance company to a Spanish hospital for the healthcare that she needed.
“This is not pro life,” Prudente added. “The law parades under the banner of pro life but in some situations there’s only one, and it’s the mothers like in mine where there’s no chance the baby can survive. At the very least the law needs to be adjusted for cases where there is no grey area.”
Prudente said in revisiting her medical records for the legal case that she read that a grief counsellor had been sent in on her second day in hospital, and that there were several mentions of ‘miscarriage’ in the records too – yet she was still denied a termination.
In an application filed last week by Prudente’s lawyer, Dr Lara Dimitrijevic, they asked the First Hall of the Civil Court to declare the two articles of the Criminal Code which ban abortion to be in violation of the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
“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,” the application says.
It is the first time that a legal case of this nature has been made in Malta regarding the abortion ban and its impact on human rights; Dimitrijevic told VICE World News that it has never been challenged before “because there is such a taboo in speaking vocally about it” in Malta. She added that pro-abortion rights campaigning remains nascent on the island, only beginning fully in 2018 but that “there’s been a drastic change since. It has been very positive.”
Prudente is arguing that the Maltese government failed in its duty to provide safety and dignity and that the articles constituted a breach to her right to freedom, the protection of the right to life, the ight to respect for family life and protection from inhuman treatment and discrimination on the grounds of gender.
A local anti-abortion group has responded to the news by calling on the government to “choose top legal advisers to defend life” and a local television personality said “there should be a lawyer representing the baby.”
But recent polling suggests that attitudes on the island are altering around the criminalisation of abortion; a survey by the newspaper Malta Today found that 53 percent of people in the country believe that women who have an abortion should not be sent to prison, up from 47 percent last year.
The Maltese government is currently waiting on the results of a review into its abortion ban that was instigated after Prudente’s ordeal. The Health Minister, Chris Fearne, said they would look at parts of Maltese law "that prevent doctors from providing care when it is needed." Prudente and Weeldreyer said that they have not been contacted as part of this review.
Alongside the announcement of their legal case, a pro-abortion rights rally took place in Valetta, the Maltese capital, on Sunday; local press described it as the largest demonstration of its kind to ever take place there. One of the island’s most vocal doctors on the issue, Dr Isabel Stabile, ingested an abortion pill before the crowd.
When asked about the legal case, Stabile told VICE World News: “A lack of access to medical care that endangers life amounts to a breach of fundamental human rights.”