At 16 weeks pregnant, Andrea Prudente traveled with her partner to the European island nation of Malta for a babymoon holiday. But instead of enjoying the trip to celebrate her pregnancy, the American woman started bleeding heavily and was admitted to the hospital, getting trapped in what she called “a nightmare” after doctors told her the fetus would not survive.
Hospital authorities in Malta, the only country in the European Union that bars abortion under any circumstances, would not allow them to terminate the pregnancy. Rights activists in Malta say the legislation threatens reproductive health and have sought to challenge it in court.
The couple from Washington state, near Seattle, said Prudente’s water broke and there was no more amniotic fluid, raising the risk of an infection and the possible threat to her life. They feared they were “stuck” as they requested a medical transfer to another country to end the pregnancy.
After days of panic and appeals for help, Prudente secured an emergency airlift Thursday via their travel insurance to undergo the procedure in Mallorca, Spain, according to Maltese media.
“We certainly did not come for an abortion, but here we are talking about saving a woman’s life,” her partner, Jay Weeldreyer, told the Times of Malta earlier.
Doctors for Choice, which advocates for reproductive rights in Malta and services including abortion, said that despite the woman’s ruptured membranes and detaching placenta, a termination was denied because “there is still a fetal heartbeat.”
Medics had told Prudente they “can only intervene if she is imminently dying,” the group said this week, even though she faced the strain of carrying a fetus that would not survive and the risk of infection, such as sepsis, or hemorrhaging. It said obstetric guidelines typically recommend offering termination to avoid infection or death “in critical cases where the fetus is not yet viable, before 24 weeks.”
While the U.S. couple may have secured an evacuation, the nonprofit said it heard from Maltese women in similar situations who were “scared to speak out” and had few options.
The country’s laws mean women who have an abortion, and doctors who help, can face jail time, although prosecution or imprisonment have not been enforced in several years, it said.
There was no immediate comment from authorities in Malta, where activists protested the total ban Wednesday outside parliament.
Women’s groups said Prudente’s case had recalled the story of dentist Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital in 2012 after authorities refused to terminate her pregnancy despite a miscarriage, due to the country’s abortion ban at the time.
Ireland has since lifted the ban in a landslide vote, as some other countries made it easier to undergo the procedure legally in recent years, including Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, New Zealand and Thailand.
The American couple’s appeal comes as the debate over abortion, one of the most polarizing issues in U.S. politics, grows more heated. Lawmakers in some states have made access more difficult, and a leaked draft opinion suggesting the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade sent shock waves across the country last month.