Silent protests have been held in a number of Polish cities in response to the death of a pregnant woman. Activists blame the near-total abortion ban introduced by Poland’s constitutional court last year for her death.
Conservative commentators and politicians, however, have rejected such suggestions. “Sometimes women die in childbirth,” says an MP from the ruling party. “It certainly has nothing to do with any decision of the [Constitutional] Tribunal.”
Although the woman died in late September, her case was made public only last week when Jolanta Budzowska, a lawyer representing the family, published information and a statement from the family on social media.
They say that the 30-year-old – who has been named only as Iza and is survived by a husband and daughter – was brought to hospital after a premature rupture of membranes in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Doctors confirmed that the foetus lacked amniotic fluid and severe foetal defects were detected.
According to the statement, Iza was in touch with her family and friends during hospitalisation and informed them that the doctors had decided to “refrain from emptying the womb until the foetus died”. She linked their decision to the near-total ban on abortion introduced last year, which made abortions due to birth defects illegal.
After the foetus died, Iza herself also perished soon after due to septic shock. One of the last texts she sent reportedly said: “My fever is going up. I hope I won’t get sepsis or I won’t get out.”
The family notified prosecutors, who will investigate if Iza received appropriate medical care and if her death was a consequence of malpractice. The health minister has also ordered an audit of the hospital in Pszczyna where the incident took place.
Meanwhile, women’s rights groups organised silent protests around Poland yesterday on All Saints’ Day, when millions of Poles traditionally leave candles at the graves of family members.
Activists called Iza “the first victim of a near-total abortion ban in Poland” and yesterday’s demonstrations took place under the slogan “Not a single one more” (Ani jednej więcej).
“If she had received help in time, she could have survived,” said Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer from Federa, a women’s rights group.
However, the hospital sees it differently. “At the time the patient was admitted, the symptoms of the inflammation were not developed to an extent to undertake any hysterical moves,” explained its director, Marcin Leśniewski, quoted by TVN24.
In a further statement today, the hospital said that all its actions were “guided by concern for the health and life of the patient and the foetus”. While they “share the pain of all those affected by the death of our patient”, they urged “a fair and honest” investigation into its causes.
Regarding whether the abortion law played a role in the death, the hospital simply stated that “all medical decisions were made taking into account the legal provisions and standards of conduct in force in Poland”, reports Gazeta.pl.
But Budzowska, the family’s lawyer, told Onet that “the effect of the Constitution Tribunal ruling is indisputable”. She says that doctors are now afraid that their actions could result in prosecution.
However, Jerzy Kwaśniewski, head of ultraconservative legal group Ordo Iuris, which supports restrictions on abortion, has argued that the situation in Pszczyna in unrelated to the constitutional court’s ruling.
“The law does not forbid saving a life,” he notes, adding that doctors and experts he has spoken to do not consider the lack of amniotic fluid as posing a threat to the life of the mother. Under the current abortion law, terminations are still permitted in the case of a threat to the mother’s health or life.
However, Ferenc says that doctors “are waiting until the last moment to use this backdoor of ‘threat to life’ as they are afraid that if they opt for it too soon they will face criminal charges [from] a politically motivated prosecutor”.
Marek Suski, a senior lawmaker from the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, whose MPs applied to the Constitutional Tribunal to introduce the restrictions on abortion, also argued today that the woman’s death is unrelated to the court ruling.
“Of course, I do not know the [specific] case, but the fact that people die is biology,” he told state broadcaster TVP, while also noting that sometimes medical errors cause deaths.
“And unfortunately, sometimes women still die in childbirth,” he added. “We do not wish it on anyone, but it certainly has nothing to do with any decision of the [Constitutional] Tribunal.”
Announcing today that an audit of the hospital would take place, the health minister’s spokesman, Wojciech Andrusiewicz, warned that “any additional words aggravating the situation are unnecessary”.
On 22 October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortions carried out due to the diagnosis of a severe birth defect in the foetus – which had previously been permitted and made up over 90% of legal terminations in Poland – were unconstitutional.
The ruling only formally came into force in January. But even in November and December, doctors and activists reported a “chilling effect”, with hospitals cancelling planned abortion procedures and refusing to schedule new ones.
Since then, many women’s rights groups reports that it has become increasing difficult for women to obtain abortions, with the number of legal terminations – already among the lowest in Europe – falling 65% in the year since the ruling.