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Poland’s Virtual Abortion Ban Harms Women, Cripples Doctors |  See

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Poland’s Virtual Abortion Ban Harms Women, Cripples Doctors | See

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Opinions expressed in View articles are those of their authors.

Today marks one year since the Polish government all but abolished access to abortion care based on an illegal and contested ruling by the country’s constitutional court.

The change in the law makes it impossible for women to access abortion care due to severe fetal malformation and threatens doctors who provide it in such cases with up to three years in prison.

Abortion is now only permitted in situations where the life or health of the pregnant person is in danger, or where a pregnancy is the result of sexual assault or incest. Recently, a new bill banning even these conditions was discussed, but failed to pass.

Human rights advocates report a dramatic chilling effect on the healthcare system as doctors refrain from seeking and providing essential care for fear of repercussions. Many women now fear getting pregnant, due to the possibility of complications that would make their lives dependent on a doctor’s decision to help them.

They don’t want to be the next Izabela: a pregnant woman who died in September 2021 of septic shock. Doctors did not perform an emergency abortion to save Izabela’s life even though she had a miscarriage. They are currently being investigated for manslaughter. In this case, the hospital’s defense lawyers highlighted the change in law, pointing out that all medical decisions were made in accordance with legal provisions in Poland.

The hard truth is that banning abortion care has a devastating effect on all aspects of reproductive health, isolating women and their families. Women report difficulties with prenatal tests, which have also been done in considerably fewer numbers since the ban.

This was the situation facing 27-year-old Anna (pseudonym). Doctors discovered her partner had chromosomal complications, meaning there was a high risk that her baby would die soon after birth. Not having the right to decide whether to pursue a pregnancy if it happens, Anna is now afraid to even try.

The constant attacks on sexual and reproductive rights also have a huge cost for mental health. In December 2021, a pregnant woman carrying a fetus with the fatal diagnosis of acrania (lack of a developed skull) was denied an abortion due to current restrictions.

She was denied this despite having received two psychiatric certificates attesting to the deterioration of her mental health, which posed a threat to her. Eventually, she was able to receive the care she desperately needed at another hospital, and only after seeking help from Polish women’s rights groups.

State control over hospitals contributes to the general atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Last December, a hospital in Warsaw had its abortion medical records audited by authorities. When the hospital questioned the relevance of these investigations and the media were alerted, the procedure was suspended.

Polish doctors now live in fear of providing their patients with the full range of reproductive care. It is their duty to provide protection, especially when the government has failed women. We urge physicians to uphold their duty of care and defend the health and lives of their patients.

Right now, courageous civil society organizations (CSOs) and human rights defenders – with limited resources – are the only ones women and doctors can count on. Extremely courageous groups of women’s rights activists such as Abortion Without Borders, under enormous pressure to meet unmet health needs by the state, run hotlines to help women with all kinds reproductive health questions and help them access abortion care. One organization, the Federation for Women and Family Planning, is building a coalition of women-friendly doctors who are ready to help patients in these difficult circumstances.

Meanwhile, angry Polish citizens managed to collect more than 100,000 signatures for a civic initiative bill that would expand abortion rights. They will continue to fight until women and families in Poland feel free and safe, and until their fellow citizens are granted the same basic rights as other Europeans.

Irene Donadio is Senior Strategy and Partnerships Officer at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network.

Poland’s Virtual Abortion Ban Harms Women, Cripples Doctors | See

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