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One year ago, Poland’s politicized Constitutional Tribunal decided that terminating a pregnancy due to fetal defects is unconstitutional. Because irreversible birth defects were, and continue to be, the reason for well over 90% of all termination procedures (those included in official statistics), the court’s ruling has made abortion practically illegal and unattainable for Polish women.
Exactly 11 months after the Tribunal’s decision, a pregnant woman died because she was denied access to abortion. The 30-year-old Izabela, wife and mother, resident of Ćwiklice on the outskirts of Pszczyna in southern Poland, died of a septic shock in her 22 week of pregnancy. Doctors forced her to carry the fetus until it died. When it did, it was too late to save her own life.
Izabela passed away on September 22, but until recently, the news did not reach public opinion. It turned out that the woman was brought to the County Hospital in Pszczyna in the 22nd week of pregnancy after her waters broke. Doctors confirmed that the fetus had structural defects, but they refused to perform an abortion. While still in hospital, Izabela wrote her family that the doctors had to wait until the fetus' heart stopped beating.
Candlelight protests across the country
In Ćwiklice, everyone knows each other at least by sight. Izabela's funeral was attended by crowds.
- There’s nothing normal about a 30-year-old woman dying. No age is good for dying, but she had her whole life ahead of her- says Zofia, who attended the funeral.
- People go on tourist trips to space, and a woman dies because some stupid regulations make doctors follow strange procedures. Where do we live? – says an outraged local resident.
- We came to live in times when doctors will wonder whether to save a person’s life out of fear of being imprisoned. I've lived through it all, but what is happening now is beyond human comprehension. I have two daughters who were in labor. When they went to the delivery room, it never occurred to me that something could go wrong. I don't even want to imagine what the relatives of this poor girl must feel- she adds.
Since Sunday (October 31), photos of lit candles and graphics expressing support for the deceased woman’s family have been appearing on social media under the hashtag #AniJednejWięcej ("Not a single one more"). When news about what happened in the hospital in Pszczyna became widely shared on the internet, protesters in many towns and cities across Poland took to the streets. The "not a single one more" action was announced by women’s rights organizations and institutions promoting the right to legal abortion.
On Monday evening (November 1), memorial candles appeared in front of the Constitutional Tribunal building in Warsaw, as well as in other cities throughout Poland.
"If I get sepsis, I won't leave this place alive"
On her Facebook profile, Izabela has a picture referring to last year’s women's march protests that flooded the streets after Poland’s politicized Constitutional Tribunal tightened the already very strict abortion laws.
She also mentioned the court’s decision in text messages she sent to her family from the hospital, suggesting that it was because of the Tribunal’s verdict that doctors were waiting with the abortion. She wrote: "The fever is rising; I hope I don't get sepsis or I won't leave this place alive". The private messages were shared by one of the woman's family members with a local news website.
Family members want to know what happened
Jolanta Budzowska, a counselor and attorney who represents the woman’s family, has issued a statement: "On September 22, 2021, a 30-year-old woman, who was 22 weeks pregnant, died at the County Hospital in Pszczyna. The woman was admitted to the hospital with a ruptured amniotic sac and a viable pregnancy. On admission, amenorrhea was noted and previously diagnosed fetal malformations were confirmed. In the course of hospitalization, the fetus died. The patient also died after less than 24 hours in the hospital. Septic shock was determined as the cause of death. The deceased woman left behind a husband and a daughter"- Ms Budzowska reported.
Izabela’s family further stated that during her stay in the hospital, in the messages she sent to family members and friends, she reported that "according to the information given to her by the doctors, they adopted a wait-and-see attitude, refraining from emptying the uterine cavity until the fetus died, which she related to the current laws restricting the possibility of legal abortion".
Prosecutor’s office launches an investigation
The case was referred to the Regional Prosecutor's Office in Katowice, which has an Independent Medical Malpractice Unit. For now, the investigators are waiting for the results of the autopsy.
The management of the hospital in Pszczyna also issued a statement on the death of the 30-year-old. It asked to refrain from premature judgment. The hospital’s administration assures that the only premise guiding the medical procedure was a concern for the health and life of the patient and the fetus and that the doctors and midwives fought for their lives.
"A separate issue is the assessment of the legal status regarding the permissibility of abortion. At this point, it is only necessary to emphasize that all medical decisions were made taking into account the laws in force in Poland and the standards of conduct" - the hospital admitted in a statement.
The Ministry of Health has ordered the Katowice branch of the National Health Fund to inspect the facility.
Government officials and politicians from both sides of the aisle commented on the pregnant woman’s tragic death. Marek Suski, a high-ranked member of the ruling Law and Justice party, referred to it in an interview with the public broadcaster TVP:
"People die. It is a biological fact. Medical errors indeed happen, there are simply sick people and unfortunately, sometimes women still die during childbirth. This is not something that doesn't happen anymore. We do not wish this to happen to anyone, but it certainly has nothing to do with any court decision".
Female members of the oppositional Civic Coalition started collecting signatures under a project calling to convene the Parliamentary Health Committee and the Justice and Human Rights Committee. - We want to find out what is the connection between the tragic death of the woman and the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal of October 22, 2020 - announced Civic Coalition MP Monika Wielichowska. - This new law has robbed doctors of the freedom to practice their profession. This law was created in our Parliament because no thought was given to the safety of Polish families. They were only thinking about the law being able to interfere in every citizen's life. This is a pathological situation- says Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament.
Parliament will consider an "abortion as homicide" bill
- And as if this tragic death wasn't enough, Speaker Witek submitted to the Parliament a bill that wants to punish women who are in a dramatic situation and are forced to make a very difficult decision with up to 25 years in prison. This has nothing to do with Christian values - says Marzena Okła-Drewnowicz from the Civic Coalition.
Initiators of the bill are members of the anti-choice foundation "Pro- Prawo do Życia". They are calling for stricter penalties for abortion and treating abortion as a homicide. As many as 130.000 people have signed the civic bill.
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