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Polish women plan abortion rights protests, demand liberalization of abortion law

Women’s rights advocates have called for protests in dozens of Polish cities on Wednesday under the slogan “Stop killing us,” after a woman in her fifth month of pregnancy died of sepsis, the latest such death since a tightening of Poland’s abortion law.

The protests demanding a liberalization of the abortion law are scheduled to take place in the capital and nearly 50 other cities in the afternoon and evening.

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.

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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 not the cause of the woman’s death. They said women had 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 before his right-wing party took over in 2015.

Candle being held

A woman holds a candle during a silent protest to commemorate a Polish woman who died during pregnancy in May, in Berlin, Germany, on June 13, 2023.  (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

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

Women’s rights advocates argue that the current law has had an especially chilling effect and warn that 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.

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The government and anti-abortions groups counter that these are medical mistakes that shouldn’t happen but they are unrelated to the new law. They accuse the pro-choice side of politicizing tragic deaths in their political struggle.

Several woman have now died after the constitutional court ruled in 2020 that women could no longer terminate pregnancies in cases of severe fetal deformities. There have since been cases of threatened pregnancies, but the doctors waited until the fetus no longer had a heartbeat rather than perform an abortion.

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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“The institution of the conscience clause, since it leads to death, must be abolished,” the paper argued.

A left-wing lawmaker called for parliament to stand and observe a moment of silence Tuesday in honor of the deceased woman. Lawmakers belonging to the right-wing ruling party did not stand.

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