Reproductive rights activists have held vigils this week as the family and lawyer of a 30-year-old who died in September say the ban’s chilling effect on doctors led to her death.
A 30-year-old woman who died of septic shock in her 22nd week of pregnancy is believed to be the first victim of an abortion ban introduced in Poland just over a year ago.
A lawyer who has been following the case on behalf of the woman’s family, Jolanta Budzowska, wrote on social media that doctors refrained from performing an abortion despite the foetus lacking amniotic fluid, and instead waited for it to die.
The incident, which took place in September at the County Hospital in Pszczyna, southern Poland, was made public last Friday, sparking protests and vigils in cities across Poland this week.
The matter is currently under investigation by the regional prosecutor’s office in Katovice as the family says “medical error” led to the death of the woman, identified as Izabela.
Budzowska said the messages sent by Izabela to her family and friends from the hospital suggest doctors had “adopted a wait and see attitude, refraining from emptying the uterine cavity until the foetus died.” She added that Izabela had felt the doctor’s choices were influenced by the near-total ban on abortion that Poland introduced last year.
The hospital responded that doctors and midwives did everything they could to save the lives of both the woman and the foetus and that “all medical decisions have been made in accordance with the applicable Polish laws and standards of practice.”
Izabela leaves behind a husband and daughter, the lawyer said.
Reproductive rights activists have long warned that doctors’ fear of breaking the law and facing prosecution for performing an illegal abortion has led to a chilling effect on the medical profession - which in this case has proved lethal, they say.
In October last year, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that abortions performed for foetal abnormalities clashed with Article 38 of the Polish constitution, which protects the “right to life of every human being.”
The decision, which sparked the largest protests seen in Poland since the fall of communism, came into effect when the ruling was published in January 2021. It amounts to a near-total ban on abortion, which was already severely restricted in the country and is now possible only in cases of rape and when the mother’s life or health are at risk.
It will be up to the prosecutors to establish whether poor judgement was made in this case.
“Instead of protecting the life of the woman, the doctors think of saving the foetus. This is the chilling effect of the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision in action,” said Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer at the Federation for Women and Family Planning, an organization campaigning on reproductive rights.
While helping provide an abortion in Poland carries up to three years in prison, women themselves are not prosecuted and many go to clinics abroad instead.