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Project October 13, 2023

Poland's Abortion Ban Is Changing Maternal Health Care



Polish abortion laws have long been the most restrictive in Europe. In 1993, Poland passed a law that allowed abortions only in these cases: if the pregnancy results from rape or incest; if the women’s life or health is at risk; or if the fetus has congenital deformities.

In 2021, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, under the influence of Poland’s conservative ruling party, restricted this even further, ruling that abortions for congenital defects were not constitutional. This accounted for 98% of the 1,100 legal abortions performed in Poland annually. These escalating restrictions have led to a chilling effect on women seeking abortions, women with dangerous pregnancies, as well as doctors fearing prosecution, or inserting their own moral or religious beliefs onto their medical decisions.

Since these 2021 restrictions, at least four women have died after doctors refused to terminate their dangerous pregnancies. Photographer Kasia Strek and journalist Anna Pamula spoke with and photographed the families of these women. In all four cases, the expecting mothers went to the hospital once they started experiencing complications and/or miscarriages in their second trimesters. Doctors refused to terminate the pregnancies and forced them to wait until the fetal heartbeats stopped naturally, resulting in septic shock for the mothers and eventual death of both the fetuses and the mothers.

In the latest death, Poland’s patients’ rights official found that the hospital violated the patient’s rights by withholding information and should have told the patient that her life could be saved through an abortion. Other doctors have been charged with exposing the patient to the danger of loss of life. This is a pattern among the four families’ cases, and now they are left dealing with these unimaginable losses.

Official maternal mortality rates in Poland are one of the lowest in the world, but doctors, scientists, and activists doubt the official figures. It is estimated that there are almost three times as many deaths as appear in the statistics because reporting is failing. In their reporting, Pamula and Strek, with the help of scientists and lawyers, found cases in which doctors omitted or inaccurately recorded the cause of death.

Pamula and Strek shadowed Gizela Jagielska, a gynecologist, abortion provider, and hospital director in Olesnica. Here, they met several women who were denied abortions by various doctors and forced to give birth to babies with lethal abnormalities, as well as women whose doctors withheld medical information regarding severe and/or lethal fetal abnormalities. After giving birth, the women are left shocked and faced with a decision to bury their babies themselves or leave them for the hospital to deal with. The hospital’s morgue contained about 20 dead fetuses from the past six months, many of which died from lethal abnormalities.

This is the first time these stories are brought together in a cohesive photo essay, detailing what all of these people have faced as a result of Poland’s abortion restrictions.

The issue of abortion is quickly becoming a focus of Poland’s upcoming election, as the current ruling far-right conservative party is hoping for re-election. After each of the four deaths previously mentioned, thousands of Poles took to the streets in support of abortion rights and outrage over doctors’ actions.

“Polls show that nearly 84 percent of Poles want liberalization of the abortion law,” according to Politico. The results of the election will not only determine the future of abortion access in Poland, but will determine the ruling party of Poland for the next four years, a country with significant strategic and political importance for Europe.

For an American audience, the piece is timely and resonant as abortion access deteriorates nationwide, playing an increasingly major role at the ballot box.

Poland contains the cautionary tales of the ways abortion restrictions impact not only women, but their partners, families, and entire communities. What is happening in Poland is a reminder that women's reproductive rights remain fragile even in the developed world. This project comes at a crucial time in Poland ahead of elections this fall.


navy halftone illustration of a female doctor with her arms crossed


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