Poland has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Izabela Sajbor’s family say these laws are responsible for her death


“I hope I don’t get sepsis because then I won’t leave this place,” the 30-year-old wrote in a series of distraught text messages to her mother, just 12 hours before her death.

Izabela had been admitted to hospital after giving birth prematurely when she was 22 weeks pregnant.

A few weeks earlier, she had been told that her unborn baby had Edwards Syndrome, a rare genetic condition. Most people diagnosed with the disease will die before they are born; his doctor told him to be prepared for this outcome.

Izabela was heartbroken, her sister-in-law Barbara Skrobol told CNN. She really wanted the baby, a brother for her 9-year-old daughter.

But after the diagnosis of fetal abnormality, Izabela requested an abortion for medical reasons.

“They went to the doctors in Poland and asked if they could terminate the pregnancy, Skrobol said. “They said ‘no’. Then, as she was looking to travel overseas, her waters broke.

From her hospital bed in Pszczyna, southern Poland, Izabela explained to her mother that doctors were waiting for the fetus’ heart to stop beating before they could operate on it by caesarean section in an attempt to prevent sepsis – a life-threatening disease caused by the body’s response to an infection.

“My life is in danger,” she said in a text message.

“Doctors can’t help while the fetus is alive thanks to anti-abortion law,” she wrote. “A woman is like an incubator.”

When a CT scan showed the fetus was dead, Izabela was taken to the operating room. But on her way, Izabela suffered a cardiac arrest and died, according to her family’s lawyer.

But no official cause of death has been released. And we do not know why the doctors of Izabela did not perform an abortion.

Her family say Izabela is the first victim of the latest toughening of Polish abortion laws, already among the most restrictive in Europe.

For nearly three decades, abortion in this predominantly Catholic country was only permitted in three circumstances: if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, if the mother’s life was in danger or in case of fetal abnormalities.

But when the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015, it pledged to toughen the law further, saying it would scrap the fetal anomaly exception, the most commonly used case for legal abortion, which accounted for 98% of all known legal abortions performed in Poland in 2019, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Health.

The parliamentary opposition prevented the party from changing the law. But in October 2020, Poland’s Constitutional Court – the country’s highest court – ruled that it was unconstitutional for women to terminate a pregnancy in the event of fetal abnormalities, saying the exception constituted “eugenic practices”. .

Less than a year after this decision, Izabela was dead.

A preliminary criminal investigation has since been opened by the Katowice regional prosecutor’s office.

Polish President Andrzej Duda weighed in on Izabela’s case at a press conference last year, asking why an abortion was not performed and why her life was not saved.

“The doctors at the hospital did not perform the abortion, so you have to answer why it happened and why the woman’s life was not saved,” Duda said.

Pszczyna County Hospital denies any malpractice. He would not discuss further details of the case with CNN.

In a statement on its website, published in November, the hospital wrote that the doctors involved in the case had been suspended while the investigation continued.

The hospital said: “Doctors and midwives did everything in their power and fought hard for the patient and her child.”

Barbara Skrobol, Izabela's sister-in-law, sits by her grave in southern Poland.

The hospital said it shares the grief of everyone affected by Izabela’s death, especially her family.

“It should (…) be emphasized that (…) all medical decisions were made taking into account the legal provisions and standards of conduct in force in Poland,” the hospital said.

The Polish government defended the law in a statement to CNN saying, “Termination of pregnancy remains legal where a woman’s life is in danger.”

“It’s really difficult to be a woman in Poland”

Poland and Malta are the only European Union member states that maintain very restrictive abortion laws.

Nikodem Bernaciak, a legal analyst at the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, a conservative anti-abortion lobby group, told CNN the law was aimed at upholding the constitution.

“A constitutional court has decided that every human life also means life before birth,” Bernaciak said.

But reproductive rights campaigners say Poland’s increasingly strict abortion laws have put women like Izabela at risk.

Activist and doula Justyna Wydrzynska of the abortion rights network Aborcyjny Dream Team (ADT) is facing three years in prison for sending abortion pills to a pregnant woman who said she was a victim of domestic violence. Wydrzynska admits helping the woman but has pleaded not guilty and is due to stand trial in July.

“That’s how patriarchy works here, taking away reproductive rights,” Wydrzynska told CNN. “It’s really difficult to be a woman in Poland.”

It is legal in Poland to self-administer abortion pills, but not to help others.

Pregnant woman's death sparks debate over Poland's abortion ban

Wydrzynska said women in Poland were under unprecedented attack. Women considering abortion are now hesitant to seek advice from doctors, she said, explaining that they instead turn to activists like her for help.

“It’s scary that the responsibility for these people falls on us,” she said. “They don’t have the psychological support.”

Some of the toughest calls she has had to answer have come from women like Izabela who have had tests showing fetal abnormalities and know they must continue to carry a fetus that they know will not survive birth.

“It’s hard for us sometimes to listen to that,” she said. “They have to leave the country as some kind of criminal, and they have to seek help elsewhere.”

Last year, ADT and Abortions Without Borders helped 1,540 Polish women travel abroad for abortions, according to Wydrzynska.

Dr Magdalena Dutsch, from the Institute for Women’s Health in Warsaw, said the law penalized Poland’s poorest, noting the financial burden for women who choose to travel outside the country for an abortion.

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“It’s a huge inequality because not everyone has the money to go to Slovakia for an abortion and as a doctor I’m supposed to help everyone equally, so that’s even more wrong,” she said.

Even in Poland, Dutsch says the law amounts to a “locator lottery” for women whose pregnancies could be life-threatening.

“If you live in Warsaw and you can come to this hospital where we are open and we talk about it … maybe we have a little bit different interpretation of the law and we are not afraid,” he said. she stated.

But the law has already had a chilling effect, she said.

Activists say women are often reluctant to seek help and some doctors worry about the consequences of an abortion if they are perceived to be too quick to offer an abortion, even in situations where the life of the mother is in danger – as in the case of Izabela.

Dutsch told CNN she doesn’t understand the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. For her, the decision to have an abortion is a fundamental right.

“It shocks me that this freedom of choice is taken away from women,” she says, even in the United States, which she considered the land of “freedom”.

This story has been updated.

CNN’s Anna Odzeniak contributed reporting.

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