Thousands of people have demonstrated across Poland against the country’s restrictive abortion law after a woman who was five months pregnant died of sepsis, the latest such death since a tightening of the law.
Protesters chanted, “Stop killing us” on Wednesday as they marched through the capital Warsaw towards the health ministry headquarters, some carrying placards that said, “We want doctors, not missionaries” and “Hell for women,” a common slogan used to convey how the measure affects those who are carrying an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy.
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Poland’s abortion laws, among the strictest in Europe, have provoked mass protests in recent years and the death of the 33-year-old named Dorota Lalik in May has stoked anti-government sentiment among many liberal Poles in advance of elections due in October or November.
In 2021, the nationalist government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki put into effect a constitutional court decision banning terminations of pregnancies with fetal defects, as conservative policies have increasingly taken root in one of Europe’s most devoutly Catholic countries.
Abortion rights activists have said that there were at least five cases of pregnant women dying whose families came out to the media, blaming the restrictions on abortion for their deaths.
Questioned about the effects of the restrictive abortion ban, Mateusz Morawiecki warned against “politicising” the case of Lalik.
“Such perinatal deaths also took place in the times of the Platforma Obywatelska [Civic Platform],” Morawiecki said on Wednesday, referring to the centrist opposition party that held power before his conservative party took over in 2015.
Even before Morawiecki’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party took power, Poland’s abortion law was among the most restrictive in Europe.
Under the current law, women have the right to abortion only in cases of rape or incest or if there is a threat to their life or health. Government authorities have stressed this week that the law was, therefore, not the cause of the woman’s death. They stressed that women have a right to a legal abortion in such cases and that the hospital violated her right to a legal abortion.
Several women have now died after the constitutional court ruled in 2020 that women could no longer terminate pregnancies in cases of severe fetal deformities.
Women’s rights advocates have argued that the current law and the overall conservative climate have had a chilling effect. They have said another problem has been doctors refusing to perform abortions on grounds of their moral conscience.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation into Lalik’s death. They are already looking at two similar cases of pregnant women who died in hospital after the death of the fetus they were carrying.
In 2021, after a pregnant 30-year-old mother from Pszczyna died, her family blamed doctors’ “wait-and-see attitude”.
A year later, a 37-year-old woman died in Czestochowa, a few weeks after she lost 12-week-old twin fetuses.