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Thousands protest in Poland against strict abortion law after pregnant woman died of sepsis

There have been reported cases of hospitals that refused to terminate pregnancies because of the presence of a fetal heartbeat even when the women were in grave danger

Gabriela Nowina-Witkowska, 16, and Ewa Wloczynska, 16, take part in a protest in Poland, 2023
Protesters gather after a pregnant woman died in hospital in an incident campaigners say is the fault of Poland's laws on abortion, in Warsaw, Poland, on June 14, 2023.KACPER PEMPEL (REUTERS)

Thousands of people demonstrated across Poland on Wednesday against the country’s restrictive abortion law after a woman who was five months pregnant died of sepsis, the latest such death since a tightening of the law.

The protesters vented their fury against the governing Law and Justice party, or PiS, and doctors who refuse to perform abortions even when a woman’s life is at risk. There have been reported cases of hospitals that refused to terminate pregnancies because of the presence of a fetal heartbeat, even when the women were in grave danger.

The protests were held under the slogans “Stop Killing Us!” and “Not One More.”

“PiS kills,” said a sign at the protest in Warsaw, where hundreds gathered around a monument to the Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. “Mom, I am afraid for my future,” said another.

The 33-year-old woman died last month in the John Paul II hospital in Nowy Targ in southern Poland. It is a hospital in a deeply conservative region of the mostly Catholic nation. The hospital contains relics of the late Polish pope, and Polish media have reported that it never performs abortions on principle.

The woman, Dorota Lalik, arrived there 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 May 24.

A protest was also held in Nowy Targ, where the hospital issued a statement expressing the staff’s condolences to the woman and insisting they did their best to help her.

“She was also informed about her and her child’s health. She understood the situation,” the hospital said.

Under the current law, women have the right to abortion only in cases of rape or incest or if there is a threat to their life or health. Government authorities have stressed this week that the law was, therefore, not the cause of the woman’s death. They stressed that women have a right to a legal abortion in such cases and that the hospital violated her right to a legal abortion.

“Such perinatal deaths also took place in the times of the Civic Platform,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Wednesday, referring to the centrist opposition party that held power before his conservative party took over in 2015.

Even before Morawiecki’s Law and Justice party took power, Poland’s abortion law was among the most restrictive in Europe.

Women’s rights advocates argue that the current law and the overall conservative climate have had a chilling effect. They say doctors are putting women’s lives at risk as they prioritize saving fetuses over women, either for ideological reasons or fearing legal consequences for themselves.

The government and anti-abortion groups accuse the abortion-rights side of politicizing the tragedies unfairly.

Several women have now died after the constitutional court ruled in 2020 that women could no longer terminate pregnancies in cases of severe fetal deformities.

Critics of the current laws also argue that another problem is doctors refusing to perform abortions on grounds of their moral conscience.

The liberal Gazeta Wyborcza daily wrote Wednesday that the so-called conscience clause was being used not only by individual doctors, but even by entire health care facilities, including the one where Lalik died.

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