After woman’s death abortion rights fight heats up in Poland

By Emma Johnson
November 29, 2021

Tens of thousands took to the streets in Poland Nov. 5 to protest the government’s extreme restrictions on the right to abortion. The actions in Warsaw, the capital, and other cities came after it became public that a 30-year-old pregnant woman identified only as Izabela had died of septic shock in September after doctors refused to end her pregnancy because the fetus still had a heartbeat.

Defenders of a woman’s right to choose say her death is the result of the government’s restrictions imposed in October last year by the Constitutional Court, Poland’s highest judicial body.

Under the court ruling abortion is legal only in cases of rape or incest or if the woman’s health or life is in danger. The ruling bans the procedure even in the case “of a severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’s life.” In 2019 — prior to the ruling — those were the grounds for 98% of all legal abortions in Poland.

Those who violate the law face up to three years in prison.

Izabela went into a hospital in Pszczyna in September after her water broke. Previous sonograms showed that the fetus had serious defects. Because of coronavirus restrictions she could not be accompanied by family or friends.

“The baby weighs 485 grams [1.1 lbs]. For now, thanks to the abortion law, I have to lie down. And there is nothing they can do. They’ll wait until it dies or something begins, and if not, I can expect sepsis,” she wrote from the hospital in a text message to her mother.

“She felt that something was not right. But they kept telling her that as long as the heart is beating this is the way it must be,” a woman who shared the hospital room with Izabela told station TVN.

Once a scan showed the fetus was dead, doctors planned to remove it. But Izabela’s heart stopped before she made it to the operating room.

The Law and Justice Party-led government claims the new restrictions are not to blame, that the fault was with the doctors. The law allows for abortion “when it comes to the life and health of the mother,” said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

“Izabela’s case clearly shows that the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal has had a chilling effect on doctors,” Urszula Grycuk, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, told Reuters.

Attempts by the Law and Justice Party to pass extreme anti-abortion legislation in parliament had failed in 2016 and 2018 after protests by hundreds of thousands. The government then placed the decision in the hands of the Constitutional Court.

Since then support for women’s right to choose abortion has been on the rise.

All Polish Women Strike, one of the main groups demanding women’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, is on a drive to gather the 100,000 signatures required to get the issue placed on the floor of parliament. They seek to emulate the successful fight to decriminalize abortion in Argentina, even adopting the green bandanas that became the symbol of the fight there.