Fr. Antonio Martello, a hospital chaplain was shocked to see that the baby boy he was praying over was still breathing, a day after he had been aborted at 22 weeks. The case of a "therapeutic" abortion in Rossano Calabro, Italy raises questions about the reliability of sonographies in diagnosing deformities.
Due to a perceived, and as yet unspecified, malformation of the fetus, possibly a cleft palate, the mother had solicited the abortion at a public hospital in the southern Italian city.
The "interruption" of the pregnancy was carried out in the early afternoon of April 24, Fr. Martello told Italy's Il Foglio newspaper this week. The day after, at 11 a.m., he went to pray for the child as he said he always does with aborted and stillborn children.
Noting movement under the sheet with which the babe was covered, the chaplain removed it and saw the child kick. "When I called for help and the pediatrician and anesthetist arrived ... they also observed that the baby was breathing, moving and that (his) heart was beating," he told Il Foglio.
"What I witnessed last Sunday had never happened to me before," said the priest, who was unable to make further comment due his involvement as a witness in the investigation of the case.
According to neonatal specialists, reported the newspaper, vital signs are so subtle in a 22-week old child that only an expert could recognize them. Due to the lack of pulmonary development, the child should not even be able to breathe unassisted, "not for an entire, very long day, but not even for an hour," they reported.
Director of Neonatal Studies at the University of Turin, Claudio Fabris, told Il Foglio that it is "in consideration of the fleeting possibility of survival at 22 gestational weeks (that) many health companies ... have established internal regulations that prohibit therapeutic abortions after that period."
The possibility of survival at that age has seen an increase in recent years in Italy. According to the national statistics, in 2008 five babies of 41 born prematurely at 22 weeks survived, in the previous three years only one survivor was recorded in 28 cases.
"As you can see," said Fabris, "the numbers are extremely scant. But we have the obligation to treat the newborn in extreme prematurity as any person in risky conditions and we must assist him or her adequately."
According to Italian law, if the possibility exists that the fetus can live autonomously, an "interruption" can only take place when the mother's life is in serious danger and in that case doctor's must adopt "every appropriate measure" to safeguard the life of the child.
There is no specific time limit established within the law, which, as the newspaper explained, allows space for medical advancements that increase the possibility of the child's survival at ever younger periods of gestation.
Obstetricians and Gynecologists from the Medical Colleges in four major Roman universities affirmed this law in a statement in 2008 in which they sustained that from "the moment of birth the law attributes the fullness of the right to life and, therefore, to healthcare."
It is further stated in the joint document that doctors must also do everything possible to save the child who survives an abortion, "even if the mother is against it, because the interests of the newborn prevail."
The right to abandon the child at birth is also guaranteed by law, underlines Il Foglio, but "health personnel have the duty to assist the aborted baby, when he or she can survive."
In the case of the child from Rossano Calabro, after spending his first day of life under sheet, the baby died in an incubator in the intensive neonatal therapy unit at a second hospital in nearby Cosenza the next day.
Doctors predicted that his age could have been underestimated thus explaining his development and subsequent survival.
A margin of error of four or five days, Dr. Fabris said, is "fundamental for explaining the survival of that baby."
Although it is still not known, probability suggests that the malformation of the baby may not have been serious. Geneticist Bruno Dallapiccola, scientific director of Rome's Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital, told Il Foglio that in his experience of thousands of cases, "80 percent of the pathologies found sonographically, after a competent genetic consultancy, reveal themselves to be completely compatible with the normality of the unborn child."
After sonographies in other institutions, he said, "couples arrive to me terrorized, with diagnoses almost always, fortunately, without true consequences."
An autopsy is currently being carried out which will shed more light on the case from Rossano, possibly clarifying the age of the child and the nature and gravity of his malformation. In the meantime, a judicial process is being brought against a doctor and two nurses for voluntary homicide.
Archbishop of Rossano, Santo Marciano, told Vatican Radio this week that such a case is "something truly aberrant.
"I define all this as barbaric," he said. "I believe that non-Christians might also be in agreement on this."
Inspectors from the ministry of health will begin their investigation of the case on Monday.