Although to many the right to abortion might seem as an indivisible human right, women in Poland continue to fight for their reproductive rights. The tragic death of Izabela, who passed away due to sepsis which developed as the doctors were waiting for the foetus to die inside of the womb refraining to remove it sparked another wave of protests across the country and prompted an international reaction. The abortion war in Poland continues.
Izabela died of sepsis on the 22nd of September in a local hospital in Poland. Izabela sought medical help due to pregnancy complications. Once in the hospital, the doctors reaffirmed the severe birth defects of the foetus but decided not to terminate the pregnancy even though the foetus lacked enough amniotic fluid to survive. Instead, they adopted a “wait-and-see attitude” waiting for the foetus to die naturally inside the uterus. It is confirmed that before death Izabela has been sending messages to her family underlining that the doctors are refraining from removing the foetus waiting for it to die and that she can expect sepsis. A result of the lack of action – the first known victim of the Polish near total ban on abortion adopted last fall. Exactly on the 22nd of October 2020 the Polish Constitutional Court tightened Polish abortion law through ruling for abortion to be illegal when the foetus has irreversible birth defects. This in practice nearly completely banned abortion in Poland as most legal abortions (97.6% in 2019) took place because of severe foetal defects. The court’s verdict shocked and terrified Polish women sparking a series of protests around the country. And now, a year later, we are witnessing the consequences of such a decision, the loss of human life, the death of Izabela which could have been avoided.
Following Izabela’s death, a new wave of protests spread across Poland with protesters gathering in front of the Polish Constitutional Court chanting “Not One More” woman to die. Izabela’s tragedy once again brought Poland’s abortion law to the public eye and prompted an EU reaction. On the 11th of November the European Parliament, with a vast majority of votes – 373 in favour, 124 against – adopted a resolution urging Polish government to enable women an access to safe and legal abortions. Furthermore, the EU condemned all other legislative proposals which aimed to further prohibit and penalize abortion.
The ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) group, which the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party belongs to, denounced the EU’s reaction stating that the decisions regarding abortion should be solely a national matter. Local right-wing and government supporting media have been ascribing responsibility for Izabela’s tragedy to a variety of other factors aiming to convince the public that the near total abortion ban is not to blame. The doctors have become the scapegoat. Pro-life organisations and activists such as Ordo Iuris’s head Jerzy Kwaśniewski claimed that Izabela’s death was a result of a medical mistake and not the law, as the law still enables performing an abortion if a mother’s life is in danger. Even though this is technically correct, the truth is that the new, restrictive abortion law significantly influences doctor’s actions and decisions. Gynecologist Maciej Socha states that the current political climate in the country creates an atmosphere of terror, where doctors are often afraid to perform abortions in fear of facing legal consequences even if their action was utterly legitimate. A similar correlation has been underlined in the EU resolution which claimed that abortion should be deleted from the record of the Polish penal code as this is one of the factors preventing doctors from performing such procedures.
Izabela has not been the only victim of the abortion law in Poland. Anna was 5 months pregnant when she died, also because of sepsis after she was forced to give birth to a dead baby. The abortion law impacted thousands of women who as a result, must seek medical help abroad or in illegal ways. According to Robert Biedroń last year approximately 300 legal abortions were performed in Poland while 34,000 women contacted nongovernmental organisations seeking help regarding legal abortion matters. Irrespective of personal opinions it is important to realise that having legal abortion is about giving women a choice and a safe access to effective medical help which every citizen should be guaranteed.