By Karolina Piwarska
When the conservative United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, a decision that disregarded the will of the majority of Americans, millions felt anger, fear and sadness. On the other side of the world, in Poland, advocates of reproductive freedom understood their pain.
Poland has been going through its own battle regarding the right to an abortion for many years. In 2020, after the introduction of a near total ban, Poland’s outcries were similar to those of Americans now.
In Poland, abortion was legalized in 1956, but after the fall of communism in ’89, the Catholic Church once again regained power. With their support, Polish parliament instilled another abortion ban in ’93. The exceptions to this ban were if the fetus poses a danger to the health or life of the mother, rape or incest, and fetal abnormalities.
On Oct. 22, 2020, Polish women lost the right to have abortions due to fetal abnormalities, which accounted for most of the country’s legal abortions. With only about a thousand patients per year receiving legal abortions in Poland, thousands more traveled abroad due to the restrictions created by these laws.
Although rape is one of the exceptions listed in the ban, in order to be considered for a legal abortion, the woman is required to have a certificate from the prosecutor of her case. Victims who may fear the repercussions of going to trial, those who cannot identify their attacker, or those who cannot prove their case beyond reasonable doubt in court, are forced to carry the child or seek help in neighboring countries.
Another obstacle that women face with these exceptions is what can be classified as harmful to the life or health of the mother, and at what point is a doctor allowed to act on it.
Many hospitals in Poland no longer offer access to abortions and for those that do, the fear of facing legal consequences is always present. With every abortion that is provided, a doctor opens themselves up to the possibility of being accused of acting too soon and potentially being arrested for breaking the law.
The consequences of these restrictions can be seen in the deaths of Izabela Sajbor and “Agnieszka T.” in situations where doctors acted too late. In both cases, the women died of sepsis. The doctors are facing malpractice suits.
Sajbor was pregnant with a baby that she was told would have a life expectancy of a year, if it did not die in the womb beforehand. When her water broke prematurely, doctors waited until the child’s heart stopped beating before attempting life-saving measures on the mother.
Before she died, during an exchange through texts with her mother, Sajbor wrote, “They cannot help as long as the fetus is alive, thanks to the anti-abortion law. A woman is like an incubator,” as reported by the New York Times.
In a similar situation, in which doctors were confined by laws rather than led by their Hippocratic Oath, Agnieszka T. died after complications during her pregnancy with twins. After one of the twins had died, doctors refused to act until a week later when the second twin followed and its heart had stopped. By then, it was too late to save the mother.
Without access to safe abortions, many Americans will now fear entering pregnancy, worrying that if something goes wrong, doctors might not be legally permitted to save the mother’s life.
“Laws will exist that ask [physicians] to deprioritize the person in front of them and to act in a way that is medically harmful. And the penalty for not doing so will be loss of license, money loss, potentially even criminal sanctions,” said Dr. Louise King, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Boston Women’s Hospital, as reported by NPR.
Although not every state has followed the bans that started to surface after Roe vs. Wade was overturned, those who did lack a clear decision on when an abortion enters the realm of legal after it poses a danger to the mother. It may take years, and many trials, for medical professionals to know when they can or cannot act to save the life of a mother. The fear of being charged with a felony and facing prison time will result in many women dying, due to this morbid period of trial and error.
The different states’ standings range from a full ban, gestational limits (as early as six weeks in Ohio and Georgia), ban blocked, ban coming, legal but limited and legal. Those with gestational limits at six weeks run the risk of women not even knowing they’re pregnant within that short of a time, missing the chance to obtain a legal abortion. Others may not experience life-threatening complications so early in their term, but could have limited options if something goes wrong later in their pregnancy.
The states that have full bans on abortions are Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. Many of these states also do not offer an exception for rape or incest.
Doug Mastriano, Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, has vowed to follow suit with the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, also not allowing any exceptions for rape or incest. Mastriano also said that anyone who receives an abortion should be charged with murder. Mastriano’s Democrat opponent in the gubernatorial race, Josh Shapiro, has stated that he would keep abortion legal in Pennsylvania.
A nationwide abortion ban, as recently proposed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, would result in a 21% increase in deaths related to pregnancy complications – even higher, nearly 42%, among Black women, according to new research from CU Boulder. These estimates do not include potential fatalities caused by abortions performed outside of the scope of the law.
If doctors capable of performing abortions are now labeled as criminals, what will the future hold for aspiring medical practitioners in the U.S. and the millions of people who will depend on them for both reproductive freedom and life-saving procedures?