“Not a single one more”: Poles protest against strict abortion law
In Poland, thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday in response to the death of a pregnant woman that many blame on the strict Polish abortion law. The 30-year-old Izabela died at a Polish hospital in Pszczyna, southern Poland, in September after suffering septic shock; her family decided to make the case public a month later. The activists blame the near-total abortion ban introduced by the Constitutional Tribunal, often seen as an illegitimate body under the influence of the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS).
“Not a single one more”
“The child weights 485 grams. But for now, thanks to the abortion law I have to [just] lie [here]. And there is nothing they can do,” wrote Izabela, whose foetus had been diagnosed with severe defects, in a message shown by her mother. After a premature rupture of membranes, Izabela was hospitalised in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. “They’ll wait until it dies or something will start. If not, I can expect sepsis. They can’t speed it up. The heart has to stop beating or something has to start,” she added. According to the Izabela´s mother, the doctors were waiting for the death of her foetus before removing it. Only when the heartbeat of the foetus stopped, the doctors decided to perform a caesarean section; however, that came too late to save Izabela´s life.
Almost exactly one year ago, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal granted a request by more than 100 right-wing conservative MPs and declared abortions for fetal abnormalities as unconstitutional. The Polish Constitutional Court is often viewed as illegitimate by government critics, who accuse it of being under the influence of the ruling PiS. In the course of the judicial restructuring in the last years, eleven of the twelve judges were appointed by the ruling coalition in a legally and politically controversial process. The president of the Polish court, Julia Przylebska, is a longtime personal friend of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński. The European Commission also sees the ruling party's takeover of the judiciary as a violation of the rule of law and the separation of powers. The fact that the Constitutional Court has been given the task of regulating abortions was described by some observers as further evidence of the government's instrumentalization of the courts for political purposes.
A corresponding law, effectively imposing a near-total ban on abortion in strongly catholic country, came into effect at the beginning of this year. According to the figures from the National Health Fund (NFZ), which finances public healthcare in Poland, the number of induced miscarriages, mostly abortions, dropped by 65 % by August 2021 compared to the same period of 2020. Due to one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, the number of legal terminations of pregnancies in Poland was low even before the ruling – at around 1,000 per year.
The activists now consider Izabela “the first victim” of a near-total abortion ban. The demonstrations on the weekend took place under the slogan “Not a single one more” (#AniJednejWięcej).
Who is to blame?
Last week, the hospital announced it had suspended two doctors who were on duty at the time of Izabela´s death. In a statement on its websites, the hospital also stated: "It should ... be emphasised that all medical decisions were made taking into account the legal provisions and standards of conduct in force in Poland."
Polish prosecutors have already opened an investigation into the case and the health ministry has ordered an audit of the hospital. However, the ruling PiS party rejects that the woman’s death could be related to the court´s ruling and instead blame the doctors. "When it comes to the life and health of the mother ... if it is in danger, then terminating the pregnancy is possible and the ruling does not change anything," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday last week.
However, women´s rights activists emphasize that the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal has made medical staff scared to terminate pregnancies even when the mother's life is at risk. According to the lawyer of Izabela´s family, Jolanta Budzowska, the doctors are afraid that terminating the pregnancies could result in prosecution.
Also the liberal Polish opposition blames the strict abortion law for the young woman´s death: “I cannot become reconciled with the tragedy of the 30-year-old Polish woman who died because doctors were afraid of the inhuman law introduced by the Constitutional Tribunal of Julia Przyłębska. I cannot become reconciled with the drama and fear of the women whose lives are threatened by the barbarians from PiS. Przyłębska, Pawłowicz, Piotrowicz, Kaczyński, Wróblewski and all the PiS politicians who have led to this - you are guilty. You have blood on your hands,” wrote Adam Szłapka, leader of the liberal Nowoczesna party, on Facebook. Alongside another Nowoczesna´s MP Monika Rosa, Szłapka took part in the protests against the abortion law in Pszczyna on Saturday last week.
“Polish people are not people of hate”
Last year, the ruling of the Constitutional Court was followed by mass protests all over Poland, in fact the biggest demonstrations in country´s post-communist history. One of the major actors of the anti-governmental protests was All-Poland Women´s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet, OSK), a women's rights social movement established in September 2016 in protest against the first attempts of the Polish government to introduce the abortion ban.
Marta Lempart, Polish women´s rights activist and leader of the OSK, was a guest at the discussion “Citizen – Enemy to the State” organized as part of a week-long programme of Inspiration Forum taking place annually in Jihlava, Czech Republic. The event was held on October 28 and was supported by the Prague office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. During the discussion, Lempart described her journey from being a member of the Committee for Defence of Democracy after the ruling PiS party started to implement its controversial judicial reforms to becoming an activist protecting women’s´ rights and freedoms in 2016.
Lempart emphasized the crucial role of civil society when supporting the access of Polish women to abortions. When speaking about the successes of the protests for reproductive rights, she mentioned that while in 2016 only 37 % of Polish citizens were for legal abortions, the number is currently much higher and reaches almost 70 %. Moreover, the European Parliament has declared abortion access a human right earlier this year. According to Lempart, Polish liberal-conservative opposition has also started to speak in favour of legal abortions in response to the protests.
In 2020, the protests for legal abortions took place in big as well as middle-sized and small Polish cities. According to Lempart, even 28 % of government voters support the OSK protests and 60 % of Poles are for same-sex marriages. “Polish people are conservative, but they are not people of hate,” says the OSK leader.
We asked Marta Lempart about the specific impacts of restricting the abortion law, current activities of All-Poland Women´s Strike as well as about how the EU can contribute to restoring the rule of law in Poland.
Marta Lempart - Polish women’s rights activist. In 2016, she was involved in the creation of the National Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet) movement, which became one of the main actors in the Polish anti-government protests that erupted in October 2020 following the Constitutional Court’s decision on the abortion law. Among other things, the movement seeks greater rights for women and LGBT+ people, independence of the courts, freedom of speech and assembly, and access to better healthcare.
Natálie Maráková is project manager for Central Europe and the Baltic States in the Foundation’s office in Prague.