POLAND – “Every woman has right to abortion if health threatened,” says Polish government after Dorota’s death

Poland’s health minister, Adam Niedzielski, has announced the creation of a special team to help ensure that pregnant women receive appropriate medical care, including abortions if their health is endangered. His decision follows the latest death of a pregnant woman in hospital. As in some previous cases, the woman’s family and activists have blamed Poland’s near-total abortion ban for the tragedy. But officials say this was a case of medical malpractice.

Dorota, the woman in question, was admitted to a hospital in the town of Nowy Targ on 21 May 2023 when her waters broke in the fifth month of her pregnancy. According to family members who spoke with the media, Dorota was told that her pregnancy could be saved. She was instructed to hold her legs up above her head in order to bring the waters back, and to remain in that position for days. However, Dorota started to develop symptoms, including headaches and vomiting, while tests indicated an infection was developing in her body, reported the Gazeta Wyborcza daily.

On the morning of 24 May, doctors confirmed the (inevitable) death of the fetus. Two hours later, Dorota’s own condition became critical and shortly after that she died of septic shock. Dorota’s husband blamed the doctors for a lack of transparency in treating his wife. “No one told us that the death of the fetus was only a matter of time and that the breaking of the waters was dangerous for Dorota,” he told the newspaper. “No one gave us a chance to save Dorota as no one told us that her life was in danger.”

Likewise, a lawyer representing the family stated that Dorota was deprived of the right to choose whether she wanted to risk her life or terminate the pregnancy.* “She wasn’t informed that the probability of keeping the pregnancy is minimal and that in her case every hour brings enormous risk for her health and life,” Jolanta Budzowska told broadcaster TVN24.

Under a 2020 Constitutional Court ruling, abortions in cases where the fetus has been diagnosed with a birth defect were outlawed. That left just two legal justifications for abortion: either if the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health, or if it results from a criminal act such as rape.

“Every woman whose life or health is threatened at any moment of her pregnancy has the right to terminate it,” said Niedzielski yesterday, announcing the creation of a specialist team to work on “how to avoid mistakes during care of pregnant women”. Speaking alongside him, the government’s Commissioner for Patients’ Rights, Bartłomiej Chmielowiec, said that an investigation of the case found that a number of “infringements” had taken place in Dorota’s treatment and that her death “is an example of medical malpractice”. He said that she had not received care “in accordance with current medical knowledge” and that her “right to obtain reliable, clear information” about her state of health and treatment was violated. The hospital would be given “detailed instructions” to prevent such situations from occurring again.

After the death of another woman in hospital in 2021, the Health Ministry had issued new guidelines to hospitals on treating complications in pregnancies, with Niedzielski reminding doctors that “the mother’s life and health are most important”.

However, women’s rights groups and some opposition politicians have argued that the primary blame is not with the hospital and medical staff, but with a legal and political environment that makes healthcare providers reluctant to provide abortions for fear of prosecution. (…)

There were mass protests on 14 June in as many as 80 cities across the country to these events.

Following the Ministry’s press conference of 12 June organised after the death of Dorota in the hospital of Nowy Targ, the Minister of Health formed an expert team to develop guidelines for hospitals on providing abortion care.

FEDERA (Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning) requested to be part of the expert team. They sent this letter to the Minister with the following recommendations on what these guidelines should include:

Main asks:

  1. Prioritization of the well-being of pregnant women;
  2. Mandatory training in the latest WHO abortion guidelines;
  3. Introduction of mifepristone in the Polish medicines list;
  4. Introduction of compulsory courses in patient-based approaches during medical education and training;
  5. Abolition of the conscience clause.

They argued that the work of the expert team will not have the desired effect without taking into account the recommendations of NGOs and grassroots movements experienced in helping pregnant women in different life- and health-related circumstances. They said: “We are the ones who assist women to access reproductive health services and obtain advice on a daily basis, and we are in direct contact with them. We are well aware of the policy and legal realities they face when seeking abortion care, including in Polish hospitals, and how that impacts their health and well-being. While our proposal that you include NGOs in the expert team was scandalously dubbed “a happening” by Minister Niedzielski, we still expect the Ministry of Health to take our recommendations into account. “Nothing about us without us.”

SOURCE: FEDERA Foundation for Women and Family Planning, + photo above, 15 June 2023


STOP PRESS: Police intervention against woman in hospital after taking abortion pills triggers outcry

Police intervention against a woman hospitalised after taking abortion pills has caused an outcry in Poland. Opposition politicians have condemned the incident – parts of which were caught on film – and called for the dismissal of the chief of police.

Officers are said to have surrounded the woman, who was reportedly ordered to undress, do squats and cough even though she was still bleeding. They also seized the woman’s computer and phone.

SOURCE: Notes from Poland, 19 July 2023.