“Her heart was beating too,” thousands of protesters across Poland chanted on Saturday during demonstrations sparked by the death of a pregnant 30-year-old woman in hospital. Her family say that the hospital staff refused her life-saving health care because they were afraid of breaking the country’s strict abortion law.
Demonstrators were joined by senior opposition politicians, including Donald Tusk, the former president of the European Council.
“For now, because of the abortion law, I have to stay in bed and they can’t do anything,” Izabela – whose surname has not been made public– wrote in a text message to her mother after being admitted to a hospital in Pszczyna, south-western Poland. “Alternatively, they will wait for the baby to die or for something to start happening. If it doesn’t, then great, I can expect sepsis.”
She died the next morning at 4am. The consultant responsible for Izabela told her husband the death was caused by a pulmonary embolism, adding that “sometimes it happens”, the lawyer representing Izabela’s family, Jolanta Budzowska, told the Guardian. However, the initial autopsy found that the woman died of septic shock.
Izabela died on 22 September but her death was made public by the family last week, sparking controversy and protests across Poland.
“Following the tightening of the abortion law in Poland due to the 2020 ruling of the constitutional tribunal, there remains only one ground for an abortion which would have applied in this case: endangerment of the life or health of the mother,” Budzowska said. “However, it is hard for the doctors to apply this in practice. They do not know if they make the right decision when this real danger occurs. If they carry out an abortion too early and the prosecutors then decide that there was no danger to the mother, they can face up to three years in prison.”
“I can still hear her words to this day, that she wants to live, that she doesn’t want to die, that she has people to live for,” a woman who shared the hospital room with Izabela told the Polish TV station TVN.
According to the woman, whose name was not revealed, the hospital staff refused to induce a birth or perform a C-section before Izabela’s foetus died. “She felt that something was not right. But they kept telling her that the heart is beating, and that as long as the heart is beating this is the way it must be,” she said in a televised interview.
Due to Covid restrictions, Izabela was not accompanied to hospital by friends or family when her waters broke in the 22nd week of pregnancy. She kept in touch with her loved ones via WhatsApp. The series of increasingly desperate messages Izabela sent to her mother the day before her death been admitted as evidence to the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who are investigating the case for potential criminal medical malpractice.
A spokesperson for the hospital has said that Izabela was “under constant medical care” and that she received treatment from the moment she was admitted. “These are their procedures. The woman is like an incubator and the baby is suffering too, it has nothing to breathe with,” Izabela texted her mother in the afternoon before her death. “I am lying and waiting, either something happens or I will die.”
Although prenatal tests showed that the foetus was at a high risk of several abnormalities, her family say that Izabela was determined to carry the pregnancy to term and was not considering an abortion.
According to abortion legislation in Poland, it is not illegal for a person to have an abortion up until the 22nd week of pregnancy by, for example, self-administering abortion pills sent from abroad. There are several non-profit organisations, such as Aborcyjny Dream Team, that help pregnant people secure such medication. Many clinics in the Czech Republic and Slovakia – not far from Izabela’s home town – also cater specifically to Poles seeking the procedure.
Although performing an illegal abortion on someone else, as well as helping to arrange one, can be punished by up to three years in prison, few people have served time for such crimes, despite the considerable restrictions that have applied to the procedure over the last 20 years.
But a new bill that would treat illegal abortions as equal to murder, and therefore punishable with life imprisonment, has been introduced to parliament via a citizen’s motion.
An Aborcyjny Dream Team activist has been charged with aiding an illegal abortion, after a man notified prosecutors that his wife received abortion pills in the post. This was the first time that an activist from the organisation, which has been active since 2016, has faced criminal charges.
Budzowska said that Izabela’s family would like to see changes made to the abortion legislation, “so that women will not have to die due to the legal doubts of the doctors”.
Izabela, who has been described by her friends as “strong and determined”, is survived by her husband and a nine-year-old daughter, as well as her mother and brother.