BY GEORGIO KONSTANDI
‘Clarifications are not good enough’: Poles demand abortion law U-turn after pregnant woman dies
It seems to be a never-ending epic in Poland. Though one without a comforting victory. Once again, Poles are marching against the near-total abortion ban that came into effect a year ago. Protesters have linked the death of a 30-year-old pregnant woman named Izabela, who died of sepsis 22 weeks into her pregnancy, with the country’s draconian abortion restrictions. Poland’s Health Ministry has been quick to clarify the government’s abortion law, reminding doctors that if a woman’s life or health is at risk, they “must not be afraid of making obvious decisions”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Polish protesters do not consider this announcement to be of any use to Izabela’s family, or to any woman in Poland.
Last year, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, made up of judges appointed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, ruled that the existing laws authorising abortions, including in cases of foetal malformation, were unconstitutional. As a result, abortion became criminalised except in cases of rape, incest and when the pregnant woman’s health or life is at risk.
But these exceptions were not enough to prevent Izabela, a 30-year-old pregnant woman, from being allegedly denied an abortion by her doctors. According to family members, Izabela had informed doctors that something did not feel right. The lawyer representing Izabela’s family says doctors were aware of several foetal defects but refused to perform an abortion because they could detect a heartbeat.
In a text message to her mother, Izabela wrote on 21 September:
“For now, because of the abortion law, I have to stay in bed and they can’t do anything. Alternatively, they will wait for the baby to die or for something to start happening. If it doesn’t, then great, I can expect sepsis.”
Izabela died the next morning at 07:39am. The initial autopsy found that she had died of septic shock.
Under current legislation, Polish women can terminate their pregnancy up to its 22nd week by self-administering pills from abroad. Non-profit organisations including Aborcyjny Dream Team help Polish women access such medication.
But Izabela’s death shows that even with this loophole, the near-total abortion ban can be life-threatening for pregnant women. Izabela’s family and lawyer say that doctors delayed the life-saving abortion for fear of breaking the abortion law. When the ban was on the verge of being imposed last year, abortion rights activists told Politika News in plain terms that women could die as a result. A year later and their grim predictions appear not to have been unfounded.
So what about the Health Ministry’s clarification of the abortion law? Abortion rights activists are far from impressed. Aleksandra Knapik-Gauza, President of Gals4Gals and organiser of the largest abortion rights demonstration in Łódź since 2016, told Politika News:
“This is not good enough. Even before tightening the abortion law women in Poland were not getting abortions when needed – see Agata Lamczak’s death in 2004. We need legal and safe abortions for all persons who may need it, not some vague “clarification” from the Ministry. Only the liberalisation of the abortion law is the answer.”