History Repeating Itself: The Consequences of Poland’s De Facto Abortion Ban

The consequences of Poland’s recent near-total abortion ban are becoming increasingly clear after a 30-year-old pregnant woman, named Izabela, died in a hospital in Pszczyna in southern Poland after being denied a possibly life-saving abortion. In October 2020, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortions will only be legal in cases of rape, incest, and when a mother’s life is endangered, while terminating a pregnancy with fetal defects is against the Polish Constitution. Izabela’s is the first death publicly linked to the ban. Although Izabela died in September 2021, the story was only made public in early November.

According to the lawyer representing Izabela’s family, she was hospitalised at 22 weeks of her pregnancy when her amniotic fluid broke. Birth defects in the pregnancy were confirmed. The death of the fetus sent Izabela into septic shock and she died less than a day later. Doctors apparently waited until her fetus died to perform a caesarean section, in accordance with Polish abortion laws, which ultimately led to the woman’s death. As evidenced by Izabela’s death, prioritising the life of the fetus over the mother has devastating consequences for both.

Sadly, it seems as though Poland is unlikely to legalise abortion following the death of Izabela. Poland’s ruling party, the socially conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, rejected the claim that the Constitutional Tribunal ruling was at fault for Izabela’s death, arguing instead that it was a mistake made by doctors. The Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said: ‘When it comes to the life and health of the mother (…) if it is in danger, then terminating the pregnancy is possible and the ruling does not change anything’. Although this might be true, in countries with a de facto ban on abortion, doctors are too fearful of the legal consequences to perform them and will often wait until the fetus dies to take action. However, doctors should be able to fulfil their responsibilities to their patients without fearing the consequences of making life-saving medical decisions. Unlawful abortions in Poland can now carry an eight-year prison sentence.

Antonina Lewandowska from the Federation for Women and Family Planning told the BBC that ‘the ruling has made it more complicated for hospitals because medical professionals are terrified now’. Izabela’s case is reminiscent of a similar one from 2012 when pregnant 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar also died due to septic shock after partially miscarrying during her 17-week pregnancy. She was refused a termination on the grounds that Ireland is ‘a catholic country’. However, Savita’s death led to the law on abortion being changed in Ireland.

In November 2020, the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution that ‘strongly condemns’ Poland’s new restrictive abortion laws. In total 455 MEPs voted in favour of the resolution ‘on the de-facto ban on the right to abortion in Poland’ and urged the Polish government to ‘refrain from any further attempts’ to limit women’s reproductive rights. In this resolution, the EP references the 2014 Istanbul Convention and the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, among with other important documents that provide a framework for women’s rights. However, the EU’s resolution has clearly been ineffectual, as the Polish government is continuing to uphold the de facto abortion ban a year after its enforcement. In response, the EP issued a new resolution in November 2021, which ‘calls on the Polish Government to ensure that ‘not one more’ woman in Poland dies because of this restrictive law and to entirely decriminalise abortion’. 

As Issue 11 of The Spectrum in May 2021 recommended, the EU needs to facilitate intra-union travel for access to reproductive healthcare. The European Parliament’s resolutions are proving ineffectual in influencing the Polish government’s policy on reproductive rights and it is of crucial importance that Polish women can access abortion services. As we have seen in both Ireland and Poland, a de facto ban on abortion can, and will, have devastating consequences for the mother’s life.


By Megan Baker

Megan is a second-year History undergraduate student from Bristol. She is especially interested in gender equality, refugees, and the idea of a shared European identity, particularly as this relates to Euroscepticism. Her interest in European affairs has only grown stronger since the UK voted to leave the EU and she is excited to research some of these issues in further depth. 

Bibliography

Adkins, William, “Poland to make abortion ban binding”, Politico, 27 January 2021.

Council of Europe, https://rm.coe.int/168008482e 

De La Baum, Maïa, “MEPs condemn Poland’s abortion law”, Politico, 26 November 2020.

European Parliament, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2021-0455_EN.html 

European Parliament, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2020-0336_EN.html 

Holland, Kitty, “How the death of Savita Halappanavar revolutionised Ireland”, The Irish Times, 28 May 2018. 

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cedaw.aspx 

“Polish abortion law protests over woman’s hospital death”, BBC News, 2 November 2021.

“Pregnant Woman’s Death Ignites Debate About Poland’s Abortion Law”, VOA News, 6 November 2021.

Vasnier, Natalia, Noe Amelynck, Léo Sgambato, Catherine Burke, Jonas Decker, and Mirjam Seiler, “Freedom in Europe: Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights”, The Spectrum, 11 (2021), 8-11. 

Wanat, Zosia and Carlo Martuscelli, “Pregnant woman’s death renews abortion ban controversy in Poland”, Politico, 2 November 2021.

“Woman dies after abortion request ‘refused’ at Galway hospital”, BBC News, 14 November 2012.

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