Women’s rights advocates have staged protests in dozens of Polish cities under the slogan “Stop killing us”, after a woman in her fifth month of pregnancy died of sepsis in a hospital that never performs abortions on principle.
The woman, Dorota Lalik, 33, arrived at the John Paul II hospital in Nowy Targ in southern Poland after her waters broke and was told to lie with her legs up, as the medics hoped her fluids would be reconstituted. She developed sepsis and died three days later on 24 May.
The hospital is in a deeply conservative region of the mostly Catholic nation. It contains relics of the late Polish pope and Polish media have reported that it never performs abortions on principle.
Under Poland’s current abortion law, women have the right to terminate pregnancies only in cases of rape, incest or threat to their life or health. The law was tightened in 2020 by a constitutional court ruling that banned abortion in cases of severe fetal deformities.
Women’s rights advocates argue that the law puts women’s lives at risk by forcing them to continue pregnancies that are not viable or endanger their health. They also say that doctors are refusing to perform abortions on grounds of their moral conscience, or fearing legal consequences for themselves.
Several women have died since the tightening of the abortion law, as doctors waited until the fetus no longer had a heartbeat rather than perform an abortion.
“We are here because we are angry. We are here because we are scared. We are here because we want to live,” said Marta Lempart, leader of Women’s Strike, a movement that organised the protests on Wednesday.
The protesters demanded a liberalisation of the abortion law and an end to the so-called conscience clause that allows doctors to opt out of performing abortions.
“The institution of the conscience clause, since it leads to death, must be abolished,” wrote the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza daily.
Government authorities have stressed that the law was not the cause of Ms Lalik’s death and that her rights as patient were violated. They have launched an investigation into the case and promised to punish those responsible.
Conservative politicians and anti-abortion groups have defended the abortion law and accused the women’s rights advocates of exploiting Ms Lalik’s death for political gain.
“The death of this woman is not related to the abortion ban. It is related to medical errors and negligence,” said Kaja Godek, an anti-abortion activist.
A left-wing lawmaker, Barbara Nowacka, called for parliament to stand and observe a moment of silence on Tuesday in honour of Ms Lalik. Lawmakers belonging to the right-wing ruling party did not stand.
The protests on Wednesday were met with counter-protests by anti-abortion activists, who held banners saying “Abortion is murder” and “Stop killing children”.
Poland has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. According to official statistics, there were only 1,110 legal abortions in Poland in 2019. However, women’s rights groups estimate that up to 200,000 women seek abortions either abroad or illegally every year.
– Abortion rights protests planned across Poland after death of pregnant woman, Associated Press, June 14, 2023
– Polish women plan abortion rights protests, demand liberalization of abortion law, Fox News, June 14, 2023
– Poland clarifies abortion law after protests over mother’s death, BBC News, November 8, 2021