'Never again': The death of a pregnant woman reignites pro-choice movement in Poland

·5-min read

Polish people held silent, candlelit vigils in the streets of Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk on November 1, 2021 in honor of Izabela, a 30-year-old woman who died on September 22 in a hospital in southern Poland due to complications with her pregnancy that doctors chose not to terminate. The lawyer for Izabela’s family and several women’s rights organisations say that she is the first known victim of strict anti-abortion legislation put into effect earlier this year.

"The doctors waited for the fetus to die. The fetus died, the patient died. Septic shock.” These spare and haunting lines were posted on Twitter on October 29 by Jolanta Budzowska, a lawyer who specialises in medical errors and is now working as a lawyer for Izabela’s family. This was the first public tweet about Izabela’s death, which occurred on September 22, when she was 22 weeks pregnant.

Budzowska shared a statement with our team that detailed the circumstances of the tragedy. Izabela went to the Pszczyna hospital in Silesia after a serious complication with her pregnancy and severe inflammation. According to the family’s lawyer, the doctors decided not to terminate the pregnancy, even though the fetus had complications, for fear of “being held responsible for an illegal abortion”. Instead, they decided to wait for her to miscarry naturally. The fetus did die but so did Izabela, of septic shock.

Izabela described her symptoms in messages to her friends and family, saying that she was afraid of developing a septic infection and dying. She also said that the doctors asked her to wait until the fetus’ heartbeat had stopped.

Stricter anti-abortion legislation

After Izabella’s friends and family made her last messages public, people across Poland have been sharing them along with the hashtag #AniJednejWiecej ("Never again"). They also shared images of the vigils held in remembrance of her.

Activists are also hoping that this tragedy will provide fresh momentum to the pro-choice movement in Poland. In January, the Polish government ratified a decision made by the Constitution Tribunal on October 22, 2020, essentially banning abortions across the country.

This new legislation prevents the voluntary termination of a pregnancy even in cases where the fetus presents severe abnormalities, under the pretext that it is “incompatible” with the constitution. That means that abortions are now only allowed in cases of rape or incest or if the mother’s life is in danger.

Possible prison for doctors who carry out abortions prematurely

In Izabela’s case, the doctors delayed terminating her pregnancy out of fear of this new law, according to the family’s lawyer.

Under the stricter anti-abortion legislation, there was only one premise that would allow doctors to terminate Izabela’s pregnancy – a threat to the mother’s health or life. However, in practice, it is very difficult for doctors to prove this. If they made a decision to terminate the pregnancy too early and then the prosecutor later determined that Izabela’s life wasn’t at risk then they could face up to three years in prison.

Lawyer Jolanta Budzowska ended her statement by saying that she hoped that Izabela’s story would "touch hearts and make everyone realize that the terrible laws currently in effect in Poland need to be modified”.

The directors of the Pszczyna hospital said that the doctors had done everything in their power to save both the patient and the fetus.

'Izabela isn't the first victim and she won’t be the last'

Antonina Lewandoska, an activist with the Polish organisation the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), believes that this new law is to blame for Izabela’s death and that there will be more victims:

The general political atmosphere and the discourse of the party in power have made it so health professionals are terrified to do their work and doctors would rather not carry out an abortion until there is absolute certain that that the mother’s health and life are at risk. The current law has been influenced by ultra-conservative fundamentalist Catholics and it is an enormous problem.

As for Izabela’s case, I think under the previous law, the doctors wouldn’t have been so afraid and they would have terminated her pregnancy. Izabela is the first victim [Editor’s note: of the new legislation] that we have heard of, officially, who has a name and a cause of death but our team is sure that she isn’t the first victim and she won’t be the last.

We don’t know how to change the law, but we need to raise awareness about it. We also have a helpline for people who need to terminate a pregnancy and who need legal, psychological or medical assistance. We provide information about abortions in each case.

Since the start of the year, we have responded to 8,142 calls and more than a thousand emails. That’s three times more than we had before this law went into effect.

Informal networks providing assistance with abortions have been growing across the country. The organisation Abortions without Borders, which is made up of six NGOs, both Polish and international, have helped more than 34,000 women get abortions since October 2020, either by using pills or traveling abroad. In comparison, there have only been 300 official terminations recorded in Poland over the past year.

The legislation could become even more strict. The Polish parliament is getting ready to consider a bill proposed by a group of fundamentalist Catholic organisations. The law would make abortions punishable by five to 25 years in prison for women and doctors.

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