Poland abortion laws: Woman’s death spurs calls for change

Izabel’s case has intensified demands to loosen Poland’s laws, which are among the most restrictive in Europe.

Thousands took to the streets after the death of Izabel, who was refused a termination [Wojtek Radwanski/AFP]

If Anka Adamczyk were to ever have a child, she would leave Poland to give birth.

“It’s … super scary,” the 35-year-old told Al Jazeera by phone from Warsaw. “The consequences are so horrible that I would really not take the risk.”

She is among the women who are now struggling to even consider childbirth because of the country’s strict abortion laws, which have seen doctors refuse to terminate pregnancies even when complications pose a fatal risk.

When Poland’s Catholic Church-influenced government put a near-total ban on abortion on October 22, 2020, alongside other measures in place to encourage people to have children, mass protests – the biggest since the fall of communism – erupted across the nation.

In recent months, the death of a 30-year-old woman shocked the nation and again sparked nationwide protests.

The woman known only as Izabel is considered the first victim of Poland’s new laws and some fear the same could happen to them.

In September, Izabel, who hails from the southern city of Pszczyna, died of septic shock after doctors refused to remove her fetus, which had been diagnosed with defects. Rallies broke out in November, when the case became widely known.

Izabel Cedro, 34, from Warsaw, describes life in the past year as “chilling”, saying many women she knows live in “fear and anxiety”.

“It might happen to you, it might happen to your best friend, it might happen to your daughter,” Cedro told Al Jazeera, referring to Izabel’s death.

If Cedro needed an abortion, she would go to a neighbouring country such as Austria or the Czech Republic to have the procedure.

But she is aware not everyone has that option.

“It will be more difficult for women who live in rural small villages, where everybody knows everybody, or [those] who are dependent financially on somebody else,” she said.

‘Irish moment’

It is women and people like these that Abortion Without Borders has been helping for years.

The coalition of six European organisations helps those from Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Malta, Gibraltar and Poland who need to travel to access abortion.

The group’s helpline has seen a surge in calls from Poland, even despite the pandemic, said its UK-based founder Mara Clarke.

Over the past year, the group has helped 34,000 women in Poland access abortion, but Clarke stresses that Poland already had restrictive abortion laws before October 2020.

“It was horrible, and then it became more horrible,” Clarke told Al Jazeera.

The country’s “compromise” law of 1993 allowed abortion only in cases of criminal acts such as rape or incest, if the mother’s life was at risk – and until January of this year, when the new ruling came into effect – if there was a severe foetal abnormality.

Last year’s historic protests, said Clarke, has helped the fund gain visibility.

“When thousands of protesters took to the streets, they were literally chanting our phone number and … spray painting [it] on bus shelters and, my personal favourite, churches,” she said.

Some Poles are now speculating whether Izabel’s death could spur the liberalisation of abortion laws, similar to what happened in Ireland in 2012 after the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar.

Halappanavar’s death due to a septic miscarriage helped to eventually decriminalise abortion.

“This could be the turning point,” said a Warsaw-based public affairs consultant, who wished to remain anonymous. “This could be our ‘Irish moment’.”

According to a recent poll by Wirtualna Polska, a Polish news website, nearly 75 percent of Poles surveyed want softer laws on abortion.

At the protests in honour of Izabel in early November, which took place from the capital to Krakow and Gdansk, chants of “Her heart was beating too”, and “Not one more”, reverberated through the crowd.

But Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, blamed the death on medical malpractice, and not the abortion laws.

He also reportedly lamented that protesters did not focus on the death of the fetus Izabel was carrying.

“We always hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” said Clarke. “As long as there has been restricted access to abortion, there have been individuals and groups helping people travel to get abortions. As long as our phone keeps ringing, we will keep helping people.”

Source: Al Jazeera