Izabela – fallout and some reflections

Izabeal z Pszczyny, rys. Bartosz Kosowski, “Wysokie Obcasy”

The second half of 2021 was dominated by news of Izabela, a pregnant woman who died in September in a hospital in Pszczyna, in the south of Poland. In October, the family lawyer has shared the news of her death on twitter, stating she was a victim of the anti-abortion legislation in Poland. Izabela was 22 weeks pregnant and presented with lack of amniotic fluid. She died of sepsis within 24 hours of being admitted. Izabela’s family believe doctors delayed removing the fetus from her womb, and waited with intervention in hope the fetus stops having a heartbeat first. Izabela herself was aware that the intervention might be delayed due to doctors’ fears connected to the abortion ban, as she wrote in text messages to her family (source).

The first demonstrations prompted by Izabela’s death, were organized on the 1st of November, a national holiday of All Saints, which traditionally in Poland is a day of family celebrations. Later in November, a second wave of even more numerous demonstrations was organized in several Polish cities (source). What distinguished Izabela from other victims, and these demonstrations from all previous ones, is that Izabela’s family allowed activists to use her name and provided photos of her face, which were printed out and held up during protests. Her name and her face, made public, helped visualize the person behind the news story. Izabela was relatively young (30), had a husband and a nine-year-old daughter. (Another case, similar to Izabela’s was also reported later that year: the woman lived in Świdnica, her name was not made public).

Women taking part in the demonstrations lit candles, held Izabela’s photos, and placards with slogans: “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). The atmosphere held both anger and mourning.

The political responses to Izabela’s death were unsurprising. While Izabela’s family blamed the hospital and were convinced the doctors did not act in her best interest, but were rather motivated by fear of violating abortion laws (source), the authorities pivoted to remove the event from the context of abortion criminalization, and ordered an inspection in the hospital, in an effort to frame Izabela’s death as an isolated medical malpractice (source, source).

The European Parliament reacted to the news by issuing a resolution condemning the Polish governments treatment of abortion access (source, source). Additionally, the Dutch Parliament moved to finance abortion for women who cannot have them in Poland (source). These events are part of a long-going disagreement between the Polish governments and European Union authorities regarding the issue of abortion. The news has further contributed to a strain on this relationship.

As a researcher, I was reminded about the real cost of abortion criminalization. Researching abortion activism and its many innovations has allowed me to focus on hope and solidarity; it may have also contributed to focusing on a rather optimistic picture. In it, abortion is criminalized in Poland, but a savvy group of activists and organizations has all but solved the problem of abortion access by facilitating access to either abortion pills or abortion migration. Izabela’s death reminded me that there are still very real casualties of the abortion ban. As long as abortion is criminalized and stigmatized, gynecology and obstetrics are not whole. One medical procedure, removing the fetus from the womb when the chances of its survival are slim or none, is still so stigmatized, that the doctors avoid it, seemingly at all cost. It was too late for migration, I’m not sure pills could have help. Izabela died understanding that she is a victim of the abortion ban. Her death is so difficult to process, because it was avoidable. She did not die of a new, incurable disease. She died of sepsis, in a perfectly modern hospital, after a common pregnancy complication.

Can the development of abortion activism, based on solidarity and demedicalization, solve all problems stemming from criminalization? Can part of pregnancy care be removed from hospitals, while another part still relies on hospital care? Can medicine’s approach to pregnancy and women’s agency be reformed?

“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.









Vulnerabilising criminalised subjects. On the Entanglements of Care and Punishment

Friederike Faust, Agata Chełstowska, Agata Dziuban, Justyna Struzik

Researching criminalisation and the punitive turn, we are familiar with the scholarly work on the construction of particular social groups or behaviours as risks to social order and security. The politics of criminalisation, crime control and policing necessitate rely upon and maintain figurations of dangerousness, monstrosity and threat. However, during discussion we had among our research team, we noticed that the subjects we encounter in our new research sites seem to be more complex, revealing dimensions of vulnerability and victimisation, although criminalised and sometimes even convicted. They seem to resist a categorisation as either threatening or vulnerable, as either innocent or guilty, as either perpetrator or victim. These subjects – transgressing one-dimensional and simplistic categorisations – have aroused our interest. Within regimes of crime control, policing and punishment they are not only governed through coercion, prosecution and confinement, but also through care and protection. Figures such as the female offender-as-victim that emerged within feminist criminology and entered into prison policy and practice seem to blur the lines between care and punishment, innocence and guilt, and victim and threat.

As anthropologists and sociologists studying contemporary politics of criminalisation we are concerned with the social lives of criminal law and crime control policies. As outlined by the anthropology of policy (Shore/Wright 1997), policies and laws work on people, they produce, and react to, figures of crime. To analytically engage with subject construction or figurations, we find Michel Foucault’s distinction between the subject of the offender and the delinquent particularly helpful that he introduces in his famous study on discipline and punishment (1977). The offender, according to Foucault, is constituted through the isolated act of rule violations. Thus, he is the subject known and constituted by criminal law. The delinquent, however, is called into being within the processes of punishment and judicial procedures. Subjected to police, judges, attorneys, prison administration and so on, the delinquent is not only constituted through the act of rule violation.

Following the criminal justice rationality of correction and just sentencing, the delinquent is constituted through their biography, personality and social conditions. It`s within the subjection of the delinquent, where according to Foucault, psychiatric and judicial discourses meet and merge. It is here, where psychiatric knowledge confuses the judicial attribution of responsibility. In our research we engage with different subjects constructed as “delinquent”: with women who undergo abortion, with sex workers, with people who use drugs and with female prisoners.  

To illuminate subject constructions at the intersection of criminalisation and vulnerabilisation, a  gender theoretical perspective is particularly promising. Foucault writes that the intertwining of the judicial and psychiatric discourses allowed for the figure of the dangerous individual to emerge. And several other scholars have pointed to the construction of criminals as monsters or risks. The subjects we are concerned with are, however, not so dangerous, and not so monstrous. Instead, engaging with certain gendered and infantilised notions of victimhood, vulnerability and innocence allows us to craft out the nuances, complexities and contradictions within what is considered dangerous to the normative and moral social order. Therefore, a gender perspective promises to interrogate, and to add nuances to theorisations of criminalisation and punishment.

Carceral-care, as defined by Ghazah Abbasi (Abbasi 2020) is a situation whereby “disciplinary tactics intertwine state repression with state care”. Carceral-care programs:

  • „are designed to promote material and psychological well-being of carceral populations”
  • are characterized by a “paradoxical nature”
  • „are neither purely coercive nor purely consensual, but contain elements of both coercion and consent, care and incarceration”
  • individualize a problem, obscuring the systemic root of suffering

Other social sciences scholars have theorized about systems which provide both care and criminalisation as “jailcare” (Sufrin 2017), “carceral protection” (Musto 2019) “penal welfare system” (Gruber, Cohen, und Mogulescu 2016). The concept of carceral care helps us understand the complexities of criminalisation policies. The motivation for these policies contain both concerns about the danger of the criminalised activity (e.g. drug use, sex work) and concerns for the criminalised subjects (e.g. people who use drugs, sex workers). This concern, however, does not increase the groups’ agency, as they are being infatilised, victimised, portrayed as unable to make fully responsible decisions.

This blog post is a summary of the introduction to the workshop “Vulnerabilising criminalised subjects: Entanglements of Gender and Crime“ facilitated by Friederike Faust and Agata Chełstowska. The Workshop was held on Friday, June 11th 2021 via Zoom platform, as a part of CrimScapes’ first Thematic Seminar. During the workshop four project researchers presented insights from their research on sex-work (dr Agata Dziuban), drug use (dr Justyna Struzik), abortion (dr Agata Chełstowska) and women’s prisons (dr Friedrike Faust).

Abbasi, Ghazah. 2020. „Discipline and Commoditize: How U-Visas Exploit the Pain of Gender-Based Violence“. Feminist Criminology 15 (4): 1–28.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House.

Gruber, Aya, Amy J. Cohen, und Kate Mogulescu. 2016. „Penal welfare and the new human trafficking intervention courts“. Florida Law Review 68 (5): 1333–1402.

Musto, Jennifer. 2019. „Transing Critical Criminology: A Critical Unsettling and Transformative Anti-Carceral Feminist Reframing“. Critical Criminology, Nr. 27: 37–54. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-019-09434-y.

Shore, Chris/Wright, Susan. 1997. Anthropology of policy: critical perspectives on governance and power. New York; London: Routledge.

Sufrin, Carolyn. 2017. Jailcare: Finidng the safety net for women behind bars. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.