Doctors on the picturesque Mediterranean island of Malta are being accused of “playing chicken” with the life of a terrified American tourist whose life hangs in the balance.
Andrea Prudente and her partner Jay Weeldreyer were on vacation on the Catholic-majority island nation south of Italy when Prudente suffered what seemed like a miscarriage.
The American, who is in her 16th week of pregnancy, was rushed to the hospital with heavy bleeding. The baby, doctors said, was fine, but things quickly deteriorated.
A day later, Prudente’s waters broke and an ultrasound showed the placenta was partially detached from the uterus.
The baby still has a heartbeat, but doctors say it has “no chance of survival” because there is no amniotic fluid left.
At home in the United States, the couple would be able to terminate the pregnancy, but Malta is the only country in the European Union that imposes an outright ban on the practice.
So the only option left to the couple is to wait for the baby’s heart to stop beating. In the meantime though, there is a very real risk that Prudente could fall victim to a life-threatening infection while she waits.
“She’s terrified,” her partner Jay told AFP from the hospital.
“It feels like a cruel and unusual punishment is being levied upon an innocent woman.
“They’re waiting for the heartbeat to stop, they’re waiting for Andrea to miscarry, or they’re waiting for her to have a life-threatening infection,” he said.
He fears she would not survive something like sepsis, saying: “They’re playing chicken with the death of the mother.”
The couple’s insurance company has been trying to fly them out of Malta to somewhere doctors would be prepared to intervene.
But Weeldreyer says her risk of mid-air miscarriage and potential complications has left nobody willing to take them.
“Maybe we’ll be able to receive some mercy or grace from Malta, that would be the best thing. Presuming that can’t happen, we’re hopeful that she survives the flight,” he said.
Malta completely bans abortion, even when the fetus has no chance of survival.
A member of Doctors for Choice, general practitioner Natalie Psaila, confirmed the details of the US couple’s case, citing medical notes.
She told AFP that the fetus has “no chance of survival,” as there is no amniotic fluid left, but said for the mother, “this situation is very dangerous.”
“If she deteriorates, the doctor will consider breaking the law (and risk four years of prison) and terminate the pregnancy.”
The risk facing Prudente is very real. In 2012, Irish woman Savita Halappanavar, 31, died of sepsis after a miscarriage when she was denied a medical abortion.
Her death outraged public opinion and led to a change in the law there.
For Weeldreyer and Prudente, there is no good outcome from the situation.
Hearing the baby’s heartbeat, “your heart kind of leaps because you’re happy that it’s still there, you think, what a little fighter,” Weeldreyer said.
“Then the reality hits that it doesn’t matter how much of a fighter she is, she can’t win.
“And in fact the longer that she keeps going, every day that goes by, she’s exposing her mum to really serious risk.”
The couple is speaking out in hope of a change of heart by authorities, but also to acknowledge the campaigners who have helped them and expose what Weeldreyer sees as a heartless law.
“You’d have to be a pretty callous person to hold a position like this. I think they should be ashamed,” he said.
The Maltese government has yet to make any official comment on the case.
Dr. Psaila noted that for all the risk, Prudente has the option to fly away from Malta.
“Maltese women don’t have this option,” she said, adding of the current legal situation, “It cannot go on.”
Dr. Lara Dimitrijevic, a lawyer in Malta and chair of the Women’s Rights Foundation, told the BBC that she has been fighting the law for years.
“Women here rarely speak out,” she said.
“The general practice is that doctors either let the body expel the fetus on its own, or – if the patient gets very ill and develops sepsis – then they will intervene to try to save the mother’s life.
“We know that on average there are two or three cases like this every year, but after Andrea came out publicly with her story on social media, we started seeing many more women coming forward and sharing their experience.”
– with AFP