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Poland’s abortion law under scrutiny after pregnant woman dies in hospital

People in Warsaw place candles on Monday in tribute to a pregnant woman who died in the 22nd week of pregnancy. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The recent death of a pregnant woman in Poland has shed light on what reproductive rights activists there say is the harsh reality of living under the country’s strict abortion law.

The 30-year-old woman, identified as Izabela, died at a Polish hospital in September after suffering septic shock — but her family only made the case public last week.

Now, activists say that Izabela, who was 22 weeks pregnant, is the first person to die as a result of a court ruling last year that made it illegal to abort a fetus with congenital defects.

Doctors at the hospital in southern Poland did not give Izabela an abortion, a lawyer representing the family said, despite the fact that her fetus lacked amniotic fluid, which can cause abnormalities or malformations in the womb.

Instead, the lawyer said, medical staff told her she would only be treated after the fetus died.

The hospital said Tuesday that doctors and midwives “did everything in their power” to save Izabela and the fetus.

“They fought a difficult battle for the patient and her child,” the hospital said in a statement, the Associated Press reported. “All medical decisions were made taking into account the legal provisions and standards of conduct in force in Poland.”

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Rights groups held protests and candlelight vigils for Izabela in Poland’s two largest cities this week. The protests came just over a year after the Constitutional Tribunal ruled on the law.

Poland, which is majority Catholic, already had one of Europe’s most stringent abortion laws on the books, banning the procedure in nearly all cases except for rape or incest, and if the woman’s life or health is at risk.

Izabela’s family said in a statement that they went public with the circumstances of her death in part because they hoped that it would “draw public attention to the situation of women and doctors in Poland and lead to changes in the law.”

The family also registered her death as possibly caused by a medical error and the case has now been referred to a regional prosecutor in Poland. The family’s lawyer, Jolanta Budzowska, said that prosecutors began interviewing witnesses in October.

“If this had occurred before that ruling, Izabela would still probably be alive,” Irene Donadio of the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network told The Washington Post.

Proponents of the restriction, however, say that Izabela’s case is one of isolated malpractice and not the result of the law.

Weronika Przebierała from the International Law Center Institute at Ordo Iuris — an ultraconservative Catholic legal organization that lobbied for the abortion restriction — told The Post in a statement that the ruling was not related to Izabela’s case.

“The doctors simply failed to exercise their right,” Przebierała said, citing the section of the law that says abortion is allowed when pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s life or health.

A change in the law would not have affected Izabela’s medical situation, she said.

But, according to Donadio, the restrictions under the law are ambiguous enough that it leaves health-care providers in “legal limbo,” where doctors are left to decide which medical procedures are legal.

“That ambiguity is unbearable — it’s impossible for health-care providers to be sure that they are not taking personal risk,” Donadio said.

“If people start calculating about personal safety and are afraid to go to jail, they might not be the best health-care provider,” she said.

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