The death of pregnant woman Izabela in Poland sparks a debate over the abortion ban and triggers massive protests across the country


Protesters took to Warsaw and many other Polish cities on Saturday to denounce the country’s restrictive abortion law, which they say led to the death of a young mother whose pregnancy had medical problems.

Protesters held portraits of the woman, Izabela, 30, who died in hospital in Pszczyna, southern Poland, from septic shock.

She died in September, but her death was not known until last week.

Doctors at the hospital delayed terminating her pregnancy for 22 weeks despite the fact that her fetus lacked amniotic fluid to survive, according to her family’s lawyer.

Women’s rights activists said the woman was a victim of Poland’s restrictive new abortion law, introduced in January.

They said doctors in Poland, a strongly Catholic nation, are now waiting for a fetus with severe malformations to die in the womb rather than perform an abortion.

Illegal abortion can carry a sentence of up to eight years in prison.

“She went to get help”

Protesters in Warsaw gathered a day after the hospital where Izabela died suspended two doctors.(PA: Czarek Sokolowski)

Izabela went to hospital in September after her waters broke, her family said. Scans had previously shown numerous defects in the fetus.

“The baby weighs 485 grams. Right now, thanks to the abortion law, I have to lie down. And there’s nothing they can do. They’ll wait until he dies or something starts, and if not, I can expect sepsis,” Izabela said in a text message to her mother, private channel TVN24 reported.

When a scan showed that the fetus was dead, doctors at Pszczyna hospital in southern Poland decided to perform a caesarean section.

Family lawyer Jolanta Budzowska said Izabela’s heart stopped on the way to the operating theater and she died despite efforts to resuscitate her.

“I couldn’t believe it, I thought it wasn’t true,” Izabela’s mother, Barbara, told TVN24.

Ms Budzowska has taken legal action over the treatment Izabela received, accusing the doctors of malpractice, but she also called the death “a consequence of the verdict”.

In a statement posted on its website, Pszczyna County Hospital said it shared the grief of everyone affected by Izabela’s death, especially her family.

“It should … be emphasized that all medical decisions were made taking into account the legal provisions and standards of conduct in force in Poland,” the hospital said.

On Friday, the hospital said it suspended two doctors who were on duty at the time of the death.

Ruling party says laws are not to blame

People hold candles and torches as they protest in an open public space surrounded by illuminated buildings.
In Poznan, crowds gathered and held up lights, similar to other protests in other cities like Gdansk, Wroclaw and Bialystok.(Reuters: Lukasz Cynalewski/Agencja

When the case came to public attention following a tweet by Ms Budzowska, the hashtag #anijednejwiecej or ‘not one more’ spread across social media and was picked up by protesters demanding a change in the law.

They met before the Constitutional Court which ruled last year that terminating a pregnancy with birth defects is against the Polish constitution.

They then marched to the Ministry of Health and turned on their cell phones in memory of the deceased woman.

Demonstrations also took place in Gdansk, Poznan, Wroclaw, Bialystok and many other cities.

Before the new restriction, women in Poland could only abort in three cases: if the pregnancy resulted from a crime such as rape, if the woman’s life was in danger or if there were irreparable malformations of the fetus.

The last possibility was closed by the court verdict.

Proponents of the new restriction say it is unclear whether the restriction led to the woman’s death.

However, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party rejects claims that the Constitutional Court’s decision is responsible for Izabela’s death, attributing it to medical error.

“Regarding the life and health of the mother…if she is in danger, then termination of pregnancy is possible and the decision does not change anything,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday.

PiS MP Bartlomiej Wroblewski told Reuters the case should not be “instrumentalised and used to limit the right to life, to kill all sick or disabled children”.

Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said the case was “difficult” and required careful analysis.

He said instructions will be issued to impress upon obstetricians that “a woman’s safety is a reason to terminate a pregnancy”.

The family hopes for changes

Protesters standing among tall buildings hold black and white photos of a woman who died of complications from her pregnancy.
Protesters outside the Constitutional Court of Poland in Warsaw hold portraits of Izabela.(PA: Czarek Sokolowski)

But campaigners say the decision has scared doctors into terminating pregnancies – even when the mother’s life is in danger.

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

“Even a condition that should not be questioned – the life and health of the mother – is not always recognized by doctors because they are afraid.”

In Ireland, the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar in 2012 after she was denied redundancy sparked a national outpouring of grief, seen by many as a catalyst for the liberalization of abortion laws.

Ms Budzowska told Reuters a debate similar to that which took place in Ireland was underway in Poland.

“Izabela’s family and I personally hope that this case … will lead to a change in the law in Poland,” she said.

Poland’s president proposed changing the law last year to make abortions possible in cases where the fetus was not viable.

Parliament has not yet debated the bill.




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