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Woman's death sparks fresh abortion law protests in Poland

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By Euronews with AP
People place candles in tribute to a woman who died in the 22nd week of pregnancy, in Warsaw, Poland, Monday Nov. 1, 2021.
People place candles in tribute to a woman who died in the 22nd week of pregnancy, in Warsaw, Poland, Monday Nov. 1, 2021.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Protesters paid tribute to a woman they believe is the first victim of Poland's near-total abortion ban.

They placed candles in front of the Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw, which issued a ruling last year that led to the tightening of what was already one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws.

The unnamed woman was admitted to hospital because her foetus lacked amniotic fluid. But rather than perform an abortion, doctors waited for the foetus to die, according to Jolanta Budzowska, a lawyer specialising in medical malpractice. The mother later died.

Some of the protesters on Monday were seen wearing red garbs reminiscent of those worn by characters in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a book-turned TV show about a repressive regime that uses women solely for the purpose of reproduction.

They included reproductive rights activists who say the woman is the first person to die as a result of a 2020 restriction of Poland's abortion law.

But Jerzy Kwasniewski, president of Ordo Iuris, an ultraconservative Catholic group that lobbied for tighter abortion restrictions, warned people should not jump to conclusions until the investigation takes place.

In theory, the woman should have been able to terminate the pregnancy if her life was at risk. But reproductive rights activists argue that restrictive abortion laws tend to make doctors fearful of terminating pregnancies even in legal cases.

“When the laws are very repressive and carry sanctions for doctors, they tend to interpret the law even more rigidly than the wording of the law to avoid taking personal risks,” said Irene Donadio with the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

How did Poland's near-total abortion ban come about?

Poland previously passed a stringent law in 1993 that banned all abortions except in three cases: if the pregnancy results from rape or incest; if the woman’s life or health is at risk; or if the foetus had congenital deformities.

But the Constitutional Tribunal, under the influence of Poland's conservative ruling party, ruled last year that abortions for congenital defects were not constitutional. The October 2020 ruling has led to a near-total ban on abortion.

Members of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church, requested the new restriction. They argued that one aim was to prevent the abortion of foetuses with Down syndrome, which, according to their claims, had made up a significant share of legal abortions in Poland until then.

An attempt has been made to counter the October 2020 ruling through a civic initiative bill known as “Legal Abortion Without Compromise”.

The bill, which requires 100,000 petition signatures before it can be presented in front of the parliament, would permit abortion on demand up to the twelfth week of pregnancy and even beyond in certain cases, including pregnancy resulting from rape or incest -- removing the time limitation in the current law.

'Wait and see attitude'

Budzowska first wrote on social media about the woman’s death on Friday. She said doctors waited for the foetus to die, and after that, the 30-year-old woman died from septic shock.

Budzowska and the family -- a husband and daughter -- issued a statement with more details on Monday, claiming that the woman told family and friends in messages from the hospital that doctors were taking a “wait-and-see attitude” and not terminating the pregnancy immediately due to the restrictions on legal abortions.

Budzowska called the death the consequence of the constitutional court's ruling.

The lawyer and the family said prosecutors in Katowice were investigating the case.