WARSAW (Reuters) - Thousands of people gathered in cities across Poland on Saturday to protest against strict abortion laws after a pregnant woman's death reignited public debate on the issue in one of Europe's most devoutly Catholic countries.
A ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that abortion on the grounds of foetal defects contravened the constitution came into effect in January, triggering a near total ban on pregnancy terminations and widespread protests.
People holding candles and carrying banners saying 'not one more' and 'indifference is complicity', marched through dozens of towns and cities on Saturday, according to organisers, including Pszczyna, southern Poland, where the woman lived.
Activists say the death of Izabela, a 30-year-old woman in the 22nd week of pregnancy whose family said died of septic shock, was a result of the ruling.
Izabela went to hospital in Pszczyna in September after her waters broke, her family said. Scans had previously shown numerous defects in the foetus. But doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy while the foetus still had a heartbeat.
When a scan showed the foetus was dead, doctors decided to perform a Caesarean. The family's lawyer, Jolanta Budzowska, said Izabela's heart stopped on the way to the operating theatre and she died despite efforts to resuscitate her.
'Her heart was beating too' read slogans on banners and in information shared by protest organisers.
"...the anti-abortion law in Poland kills Polish women. It is cruel, it is terrifying," a woman attending a protest in Pszczyna said in a comment aired by a private broadcaster TVN24.
"It is inhuman and I hope that this situation will contribute in some way, so that Polish women will not have to die," she added.
On Saturday, the news website Onet.pl published an interview with a husband of another woman who he claimed died in June in similar circumstances.
The government says the court ruling was not to blame for Izabela's death, rather an error by doctors. Poland's health minister Adam Niedzielski pledged to issue guidelines to make it clear when terminations were legal.
"I asked the National Consultant for Gynecology and Obstetrics to issue such guidelines...that will be unambiguous about the fact that the safety of a woman, in such a case as happened, is a reason to terminate the pregnancy," he told private radio RMF FM.
Poland's president proposed changing the law last year to make abortions possible in cases where the foetus was not viable. In September a draft bill introducing a total ban on abortion was submitted to parliament by a group of citizens.
"...let's finally change the law that kills women, deprives families of mothers, wives and sisters," Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bak, a left-wing lawmaker, was quoted as saying ahead of protests by news agency PAP.
(Reporting by Anna Koper; Editing by Rosalind Russell)