It has been just over two years since the imposition of a near-total ban on abortion across Poland. The ban removed almost all conditions in which a woman can access abortion care, leaving millions of women in the dark when it comes to deciding what happens to their bodies.
For some women, continuing to carry their pregnancies is the most dangerous thing they can do. Even though Poland’s rigid laws state that abortion can be performed to save women’s health or life, many doctors refuse to give them to women who desperately need them.
Reports say at least six women in Poland have been left to die by medical staff after being denied access to life-saving abortion care. Heartbroken and helpless families are torn apart as they lose beloved mothers, partners, sisters, daughters and friends—women who probably would have been alive today if they had just received the care they so desperately needed.
Like 37-year-old Agnieszka, who died after doctors forced her to carry a dead fetus for seven days for fear of harming its twin. Both fetuses were removed two days later. Still, it was too late for Agnieszka, who developed a life-threatening infection and lost her life. Agnieszka’s husband and children must now face life without her—a soul-destroying life sentence with the knowledge she could have been saved.
But when you scratch the surface, there are many more stories of women who have barely made it out of the hospital alive. And with the level of violence against pregnant women in hospitals on the rise, women’s rights defenders fear for women who have no choice but to deal with a healthcare system and government that doesn’t value their lives.
For others across Poland, pregnancy is an awful experience in other ways. With abortion disallowed even in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, women are forced to carry their pregnancies to term and go through long labors—a cruel denial of dignity that nobody should face.
For Ukrainian refugees fleeing the devastation of invasion, women who require urgent abortion care after experiencing serious sexual assault face the shock of Poland’s harsh and draconian abortion legislation. They must either return to Ukraine and the treacherous conditions they have just fled, navigate confusing systems to seek care or proceed with their pregnancies, where the severe emotional distress of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term is compounded by the fear that any problems they may face could result in death.
Sadly, it is not just medical problems that makes denying access to abortion so deadly. Domestic violence advocates have long known that pregnancy is a dangerous and terrifying time for victims of abuse, and access to abortion care is critical to protecting these women. But in Poland, attempts on a woman’s health or life mean little to authorities, with the country on the verge of dropping the Istanbul convention—a human rights treaty against domestic violence and violence against women. Domestic violence charities also face police raids, state prosecutors refuse to sign documents necessary to receive abortion care in cases of rape, and the government cracks down on anyone who attempts to help women escape desperate and dangerous situations.