(VALLETTA, Malta) — Malta announced Wednesday it is easing its abortion laws, becoming the last country in the European Union to end a total ban on the procedure.
The Mediterranean nation, located off the coast of Sicily, does not allow women to receive an abortion, including in cases of rape or incest.
However, Health Minister Chris Fearne said the government will amend the law to allow termination of a pregnancy if the mother’s life or health is at risk.
A legislative amendment will be presented to its Parliament next week allowing abortion if the mother is at risk of death and the fetus is not developed enough to be delivered.
Currently, Malta’s criminal code states any providers who perform an abortion to save the mother’s life — or women who receive an abortion — could face up to four years in prison.
“The choice isn’t whether the mother or the baby survive. The choice here is whether the mother and baby both dies, or whether the mother’s life is saved,” Fearne told reporters, according to Reuters.
“We don’t believe that after going through this ordeal the woman should face the possibility of imprisonment,” Fearne said.
The change was spurred after an American pregnant woman nearly died in the country because doctors refused to perform an abortion.
Andrea Prudente was 16 weeks pregnant when she and her partner Jay Weeldreyer decided to go on a two-week “babymoon” to Malta.
One week into the trip, Prudente was rushed to the hospital after she began bleeding profusely. Doctors told her the placenta had separated from the uterus — a condition known as placental abruption — and she was miscarrying.
Prudente was told the pregnancy was no longer viable and she was at risk of hemorrhaging if she didn’t have an abortion.
However, due to Malta’s strict abortion laws, doctors were unable to perform the procedure.
After days of communicating with their midwife back in the U.S., Prudente and Weeldreyer were able to get their insurance company to organize an emergency flight to Spain, where an abortion could be performed.
“This baby can’t live,” Weeldreyer told ABC News at the time. “And the fact that Andrea’s being forced to suffer as a consequence of it is barbaric. Like … it’s inexcusable. It’s been a long grind. She’s been through the wringer,” he said.
In September, the couple sued Malta’s government, arguing the ban is unconstitutional and violates the European Convention of Human Rights. The case has yet to go to trial.
Malta is a predominantly Catholic country with most residents favoring abortion restrictions. One recent poll found 61.8% of Maltese do not believe abortion should be decriminalized.
The poll showed 27.8% of survey respondents believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances while 8.3% said it should be legal in all cases.
Malta is one of only five countries in Europe where abortion is severely restricted, which includes Andorra, Liechtenstein, Poland and Vatican City.
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