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.









“Even a mildly intelligent person can organize an abortion abroad”: Kaczyński’s statement on abortion tourism and the legal fiction of criminalisation

The Polish ruling party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, gave an interview to Wprost magazine titled “Even a mildly intelligent person can organize an abortion abroad” (Olczyk and Miziołek 2021a). In the interview he openly points to the possibility of going abroad to obtain an abortion as an easy way of circumventing the abortion ban. In the same interview, Kaczyński denies that Poland in fact has an “abortion ban”, or that the recent legal changes (eliminating embryopatological indications for legal abortion effective January 2021) in any way “threaten the interests of women” (Olczyk and Miziołek 2021b). Kaczyński also mentions that women in Germany need “various certificates” in order to access abortion, making a parallel between German and Polish regulations, despite the latter being one of the most restrictive in the world.

By citing the ease of organizing an abortion abroad, the party leader, usually a skilled strategist, angered many environments. Last autumn Polish women have organized protests of unprecedented scale against further criminalization of abortion, which was passed regardless, by way of a Constitutional Tribunal ruling. Kaczyński’s statement can easily be read as patronizing: the leader suggested, that a total ban is easy to circumvent, therefore there is no cause for social discontent. This suggestion, best described as gaslighting, did not appease the public. Some pointed out that not everyone can afford to travel abroad, and leave their families, jobs and responsibilities to seek medical care in a foreign country, especially during the pandemic. In the context of expanding criminalization, it was also strange for a politician to ensure citizens that they can escape the law by leaving the country. This statement amounted to admission that abortion law is a dead letter law: abortion is forbidden, yet we all know women have it, only not in Poland.

On the other side of the political spectrum, a fundamentalist think-tank “Ordo Iuris”, rooted in the Tradition Family Property network, responded by formulating a new goal: putting an absolute stop to abortion migration and at-home abortion (Waloch 2021; Kwaśniewski 2021). This ambitious declaration came shortly after the think tank’s previous postulates were realized (embryopathological indications removed as grounds for legal abortion). It’s a sign that the anti-choice movement, in which Ordo Iuris plays an important role, will always formulate new, further reaching goals. It is therefore a new kind of actor on the Polish political scene, that makes the Catholic Church’s hierarchy look moderate in comparison. The ruling party, accustomed to a peaceful co-existence with the Catholic Church hierarchy, finds itself in a new, inconvenient situation: Ordo Iuris raises postulates based on ideas of “tradition” and “Christianity”; it is hard for Law and Justice to reject their postulates, as they base their program on similar ideas. On the other hand, the changes demanded by Ordo Iuris, particularly further tightening the abortion ban, are not popular among the majority of the citizens. The political struggle around embryopathological indications in the autumn of 2020 brought about political protests of unprecedented scale, and cost the ruling party about 9 points in the polls. The new, fundamentalist political force in the Polish political scene is forcing the ruling party’s hand, and drawing more attention to a controversial topic.

The third, maybe unintended result the Wprost interview is that abortion tourism is becoming even more visible, present in the public debate. The interview is one of the first official statements in which a Polish member of the Parliament acknowledges abortion tourism and its place in maintaining the abortion ban. Without the possibilities of circumventing abortion criminalization, it could not be sustained. The social reality of abortion criminalization rests on simultaneous stigmatization and accessibility of abortion. Accessing abortion is harder in Poland, than in countries, where is not criminalized, meaning it costs women more time, money and effort to overcome stigmatization and find an acceptable solution. Nevertheless, criminalization does not make abortion impossible, and therefore the legal fiction can be maintained. This arrangement allowed the government, the Church and the society maintain a delicate equilibrium between public condemnation of abortion on the symbolic level, and the clandestine, privatized, matter-of-fact practice of abortion in the reproductive lives of women in Poland. The recent events are marked by intensified efforts to unmask that unspoken status quo, and change the place of abortion in the Polish public life.

Article by Dr. Agata Chełstowska

Kwaśniewski, Jerzy. Newsletter. 2021. “Zatrzymujemy Promocję Przestępczości Aborcyjnej (Newsletter Ordo Iuris),” May 25, 2021. kontakt@ordoiuris.pl.

Olczyk, Eliza, and Joanna Miziołek. 2021a. “Jarosław Kaczyński Dla „Wprost”: Każdy Średnio Rozgarnięty Człowiek Może Załatwić Aborcję Za Granicą.” Wprost, May. https://www.wprost.pl/kraj/10449780/jaroslaw-kaczynski-dla-wprost-kazdy-moze-zalatwic-aborcje-za-granica.html.

———. 2021b. “Jarosław Kaczyński Dla „Wprost”: Każdy Średnio Rozgarnięty Człowiek Może Załatwić Aborcję Za Granicą.” Wprost, May. https://www.wprost.pl/kraj/10449780/jaroslaw-kaczynski-dla-wprost-kazdy-moze-zalatwic-aborcje-za-granica.html.

Waloch, Natalia. 2021. “Koniec z Aborcją Polek Za Granicą Oraz w Domu, Koniec z Pigułką ‘Dzień Po’. Ordo Iuris Szykuje Blitzkrieg Nowych Przepisów.” Wysokie Obcasy, April 25, 2021. https://www.wysokieobcasy.pl/wysokie-obcasy/7,163229,27125283,koniec-z-aborcja-polek-za-granica-oraz-w-domu-koniec-z-pigulka.html.

Requests, Memes and Networks: Transgressing the national boundaries in the context of criminalization of abortion in Poland

The Polish embassy sent a letter to Czech officials demanding, that the Czech parliament does not pass a law clarifying that Polish women can obtain abortions in Czech Republic. In the March 2021 letter a Polish diplomat warned that passing such a law would be “unfortunate” for the Czech-Polish diplomatic relations, since the law would be “openly motivated by an intention to circumvent the Polish law, which protects the unborn human life” and that this propositions “are aimed at encouraging Polish citizens to break Polish law” (p.mal 2021).

The Polish abortion ban, tightened in January this year to exclude embryopathological indications, forces Polish women to travel for abortions, often to neighboring countries. The Czech Republic has long been one of those destinations, and the planned legislation is supposed to update the current 1986 law to adjust it to the new context of EU membership. The new law is only supposed to formalize an ongoing practice of providing medical care to Polish women in Czech Republic, but it still stimulated Polish officials to take a stand.

The voice of the Polish official might seem comic and it has, in fact, given rise to many a meme. The strangeness of this request to prevent women from having abortions in Czech hospitals stems from an elementary legal rule: jurisdiction. The law of a certain country only applies to this country’s territory. The desire of the Polish politicians to foil any woman’s attempt to escape the criminalization of abortion in Poland, even outside Poland’s territory, goes against the rule of jurisdiction. The officials are acting as if the Polish law could be binding even outside Poland. We might call this ambition, expansiveness or a bid for ultra-sovereignty.

Ultra-sovereignty is an effort to expand the binding force of certain laws beyond a country’s territory (by means other than international treaties), or at least to create an illusion of such power. This illusion, creating a perception among the Polish public, that abortion is illegal for Polish women everywhere, might prove crucial, as criminalization comprises of so much more than just the legal order. Public perception, popular understanding of rules, laws and their implementation, as well as the effects of stigmatization of a certain criminalized act or issue, all constitute the functioning social reality of criminalization.

The Polish official’s letter seems to be aimed at creating an illusion, however contrary to legal rules, that Polish women cannot find help anywhere, and cannot escape the Polish law. Legally, these claims are empty, but on the level of public perception, their role is to increase the impression of illegality, the unacceptability of abortion travel, and feelings of loneliness and helplessness. While legal debates will continue, the public understanding of the issue might only retain the vague information about the ambitions of the Polish state to stop Polish women from going abroad to terminate a pregnancy. On the other hand, the news brought about many satirical responses, including memes, showing the Polish embassy’s efforts as comic and delusional.

“The Czechs after finding out the Polish don’t like their law. Hello!”

Source: Średnio Się Przejęli 2021; Polska to Oficjalnie Mem 2021
“Polish ambassador in Czech Republic: Don’t let Polish women have abortions in your country, because it is illegal in our country. The Czechs: Thank you very much for this piece of invaluable information, but I really don’t give a shit.”

The increased visibility of abortion tourism (or abortion migration) is a new phenomenon in Polish abortion debate. I hypothesize it is a result of a new type of pro-abortion activism. New activist groups seem to adopt a strategy, in which organizing, facilitating and popularizing at-home pharmacological abortions and abortion tourism is prioritized over strategic litigation and facilitating legal abortions in Poland. These new activist groups choose to center the conditions and costs the abortion ban imposes on women, while directing public attention away from monstrous-fetal imagery of the anti-choice movement. Most of these groups were founded between 2016 and 2021 (e.g. Aborcyjny Dream Team, Ciocia Czesia), although some go back as far as 2006 (Kobiety w Sieci).

One of the results of this strategy is a dissemination of knowledge on how to safely circumvent the abortion ban. A recent interview in Newsweek reveals, that it was in fact one of such groups that initiated the legislative update that is being processed by the Czech parliament (Pawlicki 2021). Ciocia Czesia (“Auntie Czesia”) is a group of Polish women living in the Czech Republic, who facilitate contact between Polish women seeking abortions and two Czech clinics (one private, one public). Thanks to online crowdfunding, the group can also provide financial assistance to those who cannot afford the trip. Ciocia Basia activists point to other similar groups in Austria and Germany as inspiration and source of know-how (Ciocia Basia and Ciocia Wienia) (ibidem). An important part of this activism lies in its openness and the rejection of secrecy, a conscious effort to combat abortion stigmatization and fear around facilitation – crucial components of criminalization.

These developments demonstrate how criminalization of abortion is a constant negotiation and struggle between different actors (national states, citizens, clinics, public opinion) and that new, surprising strategies are being formulated to address it. Transgressing national borders seems to be a growing feature in the debates and practices around abortion criminalization.

  • Pawlicki, Jacek. 2021. “To z Jej Powodu z Polskiego Dyplomaty Śmieją Się w Czechach. „Ciocia Czesia” Pomaga Polkom Zorganizować Aborcję Za Granicą.” Newsweek, May. https://www.newsweek.pl/swiat/aborcja-w-czechach-polki-pomagaja-polkom/ynqb794.
  • p.mal. 2021. “Ambasada Do Władz Czech: Nie Ułatwiajcie Aborcji Polkom.” Rzeczpospolita, May 2, 2021. https://www.rp.pl/Dyplomacja/210509961-Ambasada-do-wladz-Czech-Nie-ulatwiajcie-aborcji-Polkom.html.
  • Polska to Oficjalnie Mem. 2021. Mem. https://memy.jeja.pl/759450,polska-to-oficjalnie-mem.html.
  • Średnio Się Przejęli. 2021. https://kwejk.pl/obrazek/3763313/srednio-sie-przejeli.html.

Article written by Dr. Agata Chełstowska.