“She also had a heartbeat” – protests after Polish abortion ban claims a victim

Candles reflected a warm light onto the faces of people protesting outside the Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw last Monday (1st November). They gathered to protest the death of a pregnant woman, who died due to the recently tightened Polish anti-abortion law. The woman, known only by her name, Izabela, was 30 years old and 22 weeks pregnant. Her doctors did not perform an abortion after they found out the fetus suffered of lack of amniotic fluid, and instead waited for the fetus to die. The woman died of sepsis after less than 24 hours in the hospital. The family is suing the hospital for malpractice. The hospital, in turn, issued a statement in which they assure that “the doctors and staff did everything in their power and fought hard for the life of the Patient and Her Baby”.

The Polish law allows for an abortion in case the pregnant woman’s health or life is in danger or when the pregnancy results from a crime. However, the “chilling effect” of the law causes doctors to be hesitant when they are faced with a need for an abortion, even in cases where it is necessary to guard a woman’s health. That seems to have happened in the case of Izabela, who left behind a husband and daughter. The public has only learnt of the news last week when the lawyer for the family shared the information on twitter. The family have asked to keep her surname and residence out of the press.

Protests were held in Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk and other towns. They fell on the 1st of November, a national holiday for All Saints, a celebration during which families visit the graves of their dead. In Warsaw the protest was held in front of the Constitutional Tribunal, which is controlled by the ruling party and whose verdict effectively banned abortion due to congenital defects in 2020.

I wrote down some of the slogans from the hand-made placards held at this protest, and I list them below.

“Not one more” (Ani jednej więcej)

“She also had a heartbeat” or “Her heart was also still beating” (Jej serce też ciągle biło)

“We are sorry we couldn’t do anything” (Przepraszamy że nie mogłyśmy nic zrobić)

“Abortion means life” (Aborcja znaczy życie)

“Her blood is on your hands” (Jej krew jest na waszych rękach)

“The well-being of the patient is the highest law” (Dobro pacjentki najwyższym prawem) [pacjentki – the word used is in female form]

 “Agata, Iza, Ani jednej więcej” – this slogan combines the names of Agata and Iza as two women who died because they were denied medical care in connection to the Polish abortion law. Agata Lamczak died in 2004, she had a large intestine infection doctors refused to treat for fear of upsetting her pregnancy.

“Our thoughts are with your family” (Jesteśmy myślą z twoją rodziną)

Among those present there was Alicja Tysiąc, a woman who famously lost most of her eyesight after doctors denied her an abortion and won a case against Poland in the European Tribunal of Human Rights in 2007. In the crowd I also saw pro-abortion activists called “abortion companions”, a woman politician, LGBT activists. There were some older protesters, although the majority were young people, mainly women and girls. A TV reporter spoke to one of the activists from Abortion Dream Team; I later learned reporters were unwilling to turn up.

The case illustrated once more the difference between concepts of “criminalization” and “illegality”. It would have been legal for doctors to terminate Izabela’s pregnancy, and yet they withheld treatment. Criminalization of abortion relies on stigmatization as heavily as it does on illegality. Social actors may not be clear on the letter of the law, and still realize that an activity or service is criminalized, that they could “get in trouble” for it.  They might try not to break the law, or even be overly cautious, and stop performing criminalized service altogether, and not just in some cases.

The case of Izabela also brings to light the medicalization of abortion, and trust placed in doctors and their expertise. This trust has been breached, and hospitals and doctors are not seen as guaranteeing safety for women-patients who are pregnant. On the other hand, hte demedicalization of abortion is a new concept in Poland and applies manily to the first trimester pregnancies, not to complications in later pregnancies, such as the one in Izabela’s case.









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