POLAND – Two abortion law reform bills from The Left ; Death of pregnant woman that sparked protests in 2021 was unrelated to abortion law, say prosecutors, who charged the doctors with medical malpractice instead ; Gynaecologist charged with helping five patients obtain abortions

Two abortion law reform bills from The Left

The Left (Lewica), which is part of the coalition likely to form Poland’s new government, announced two bills to liberalise the country’s strict abortion laws on the first day of parliament this month. One bill would end the current near-total ban on abortion and instead introduce abortion on demand. The other would end the criminalisation of those who help women obtain abortions. However, when this article was written, it appeared unlikely that the bills will enjoy support from more conservative elements of the new coalition.

On its own, The Left, which performed below expectations in last month’s elections, has only 26 seats. The centrist Civic Coalition (KO), which has 157 seats, say they support The Left’s abortion demands. However, to obtain a parliamentary majority the Left would also need the voters of most MPs from the centre-right Third Way (Trzecia Droga) group, which is the final member of the likely new governing coalition. It is much more conservative on abortion, and called for a national referendum to decide the issue.

Under one of the bills proposed by The Left, abortion on demand would be allowed up to the 12th week of pregnancy. After that point, terminations would be permitted if the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman’s health or life, if it resulted from rape or incest, or if the fetus was diagnosed with birth defects. In the latter two cases, abortions would be permitted up to the 24th week of pregnancy (or later if the fetus is found to have a defect incompatible with life), according to news website OKO.press. Those changes would not only overturn the current near-total abortion ban but would also create a much more liberal law than existed before that ban went into force in January 2021. The bill would also seek to prevent hospitals from denying patients abortions by invoking the so-called conscience clause that allows doctors to refuse to offer them if it conflicts with their beliefs.

Under The Left’s proposed law, if a doctor refuses to terminate a pregnancy, the same healthcare facility must provide the patient with access to the procedure, either themselves or through a sub-contractor. Any facility that does not do so could lose its state funding.

The second bill put forward would decriminalise helping a woman obtain an abortion, which is currently a crime that can carry a prison sentence of up to three years.

Notes from Poland, 14 November 2023


Death of pregnant woman that sparked protests in 2021 was unrelated to abortion law, say prosecutors, who charged the doctors with medical malpractice instead

Izabela died in September 2021 after being brought to hospital in the 20th week of her pregnancy, following a premature rupture of membranes. The fetus subsequently died, and then so did Izabela herself, soon after, due to septic shock.

During her stay in hospital, Izabela wrote messages to her family saying that doctors had decided to “wait until [the fetus] dies”. She linked their decision to the near-total ban on abortion, which made abortions due to birth defects illegal. She complained of being treated as an “incubator”.

After news of her death emerged, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the abortion law, which they believed had prevented or discouraged doctors from acting earlier to end her pregnancy. However, many conservatives, including figures from the national-conservative ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), insisted it was a tragic case of medical malpractice unrelated to the law, which they note still allows abortions if a pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or health.

In September 2022, prosecutors – who are under the authority of Justice Minister and Public Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro – brought charges against the doctors who treated Izabela, accusing them of professional negligence that contributed to her death.

Rzeczpospolita, a leading daily, reported that prosecutors have now completed their investigation, with three doctors – including the head of obstetrics and gynaecology at the hospital – set to face trial for unintentionally causing Izabela’s death. All three have denied the charges against them.

According to prosecutors, the doctors acted contrary to medical practice when treating Izabela, which resulted in the death first of the foetus and, consequently, of Izabela herself. They could face between three months and five years in prison if convicted.

The doctors claim that they acted in accordance with procedures. But their argument has been rejected by experts commissioned by prosecutors, by the commissioner for patients’ rights, as well as by the state National Health Fund (NFZ), which fined the hospital in question following an inspection.

Rzeczpospolita reported on 16 November that prosecutors found that the Constitutional Court ruling which tightened Poland’s abortion law in 2021, by outlawing abortions due to birth defects, had no impact on the doctors’ conduct in Izabela’s case. The medics themselves and their lawyers also did not raise this issue in their arguments.

When contacted by the newspaper, Jolanta Budzowska, a lawyer representing Izabela’s family, said that she was unable to comment on the prosectors’ findings. However, she said that the accounts of “Izabela’s husband, her text messages, as well as the explanations given by one of the doctors to her sister-in-law clearly prove that the stricter abortion law had an impact on the doctors’ decision-making process”. That is the case regardless of whether or not the doctor’s actions were in accordance with proper procedure, added Budzowska.

Izabela’s death is one of a number suffered by pregnant women in hospitals since 2021 – a phenomenon that activists have blamed on the tightening of the abortion law. In response to such concerns, in June this year, the Health Minister announced the creation of a special team to help ensure that pregnant women receive appropriate medical care, including abortions if their health is endangered. Shortly afterwards, Poland’s Supreme Medical Chamber (NIL), the body representing the country’s doctors, issued guidelines on performing abortions when a pregnancy threatens the mother’s health or life.

SOURCE: Notes from Poland, 16 November 2023


Gynaecologist charged with helping five patients obtain abortions

Prosecutors say that the doctor, Maria Kubisa, provided the pills without checking whether it was justified under Poland’s anti-abortion law. She denies the charges and says the authorities are trying to “intimidate” her. In January 2023 agents from the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau raided her private medical practice on the orders of the prosecutors. They seized her medical files on thousands of patients dating back to 1996, returning them only two months later, after patients had complained that their rights had been violated.

She said that she had stopped treating pregnant patients in Poland after the 2020 constitutional court ruling that introduced a near-total ban on abortion by outlawing terminations in cases where the fetus is diagnosed with severe birth defects. She said that “her medical conscience won’t allow her to tell women carrying such fetuses that they ‘have to carry this pregnancy to term’” as Polish law requires.

In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt Dr Kubisa said that she believes the Polish authorities want to intimidate her because she had been providing abortions to Polish patients at a clinic over the border in Germany, where she also works. Those procedures are legal under German law.

But the prosecutors said that the charges were based on witness statements as well as information found on her mobile phone and in seized documents. that “the names of the people indicated in the decision to present charges are unfamiliar to her”. “The [actual] victims are the patients,” said the lawyer. “It is their medical records and data that have been secured. Further actions are being taken by some patients.”

Earlier this year, a number of her patients announced that they would take legal action against the authorities over the seizure of their medical records. Her patients have also organised protests in support of their doctor.

SOURCE: Notes from Poland, 25 November 2023