Polish Women Are Dying As Hospitals Refuse To Perform Life-Saving Abortions
Poland is known for having the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. As political debates about the issue rage on, a Gazeta Wyborcza investigation finds that women are dying in medical facilities — notably in John Paul II Hospital — because doctors refuse to perform life-saving abortions.
WARSAW — The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has just rejected a complaint by eight Polish women who argued that they were forced to carry their pregnancies to term despite severe fetal abnormalities.
This is one of several thousand complaints Polish women have filed to the ECHR after a 2020 ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal further restricted the country’s already stringent abortion rights.
While the ECHR continues to review the remaining complaints, Dorota Lalik, a 33-year old woman from Bochnia, a town in southern Poland, has died after a Polish hospital refused to perform an abortion which would have saved her life.
Poles across 60 cities took to the streets in protest this week, under the slogan "not one more", hoping to end similar cases of medical neglect.
Did the 33-year old pregnant Dorota have to die in John Paul II hospital in the town of Nowy Targ in southern Poland? Why did doctors refuse to terminate a pregnancy that put her life at risk? There have been many complaints by employees, former employees, and patients at the hospital.
“I remember a patient who came to give birth,” said Agata, who works at the hospital, and asked for her last name to be withheld. “Her pregnancy was healthy, and she had carried fully to term... The doctors waited so long to perform a cesarean section that, when the procedure finally took place, the baby received an Apgar score of one."
"He didn't explain what was happening"
The score is used by medical professionals to assess the initial health of newborns, and ranges from a scale of ten points for the healthiest infants, to zero for those in critical condition.
I don’t remember the last time that procedure was carried out in this hospital.
“Born with severe asphyxia, the newborn died in the hospital,” Agata says, adding that the event caused one of the doctors on the scene to “burst into tears”. This doctor was then reprimanded by the head physician, who told her that “she would soon learn not to react so emotionally”.
“The head of obstetrics and gynecology was very unpleasant to me," says Maria, a former patient of the JPII hospital. “He didn’t explain what was happening to me, or what my condition was... When I told him that my attending physician suspected I had lymphoma, he snapped at me — telling me not to tell him what to do."
“A termination of pregnancy? I don’t remember the last time that procedure was carried out in this hospital,” says Urszula, another hospital employee. She remembers an incident where a woman gave birth to a newborn suffering from acrania — a lethal disorder where infants are born without a skull. “She didn’t even want to look at the baby,” Urszula recalls of the patient. “She just wanted to get home as soon as possible.”
Bed rest instead of medical tests
Dorota was in the 20th week of her pregnancy when she arrived in the Nowy Targ hospital. Her water began to break in the nighttime, between the 20th and 21st of May. She was with her husband and family in the Podhale region, the southernmost region of Poland near the Slovakian border. At around three in the morning, Dorota and her husband drove to the John Paul II hospital. Doctors at the scene found Dorota in a state of dehydration, and she was taken in for treatment.
“Nurses instructed her to lay with her legs above her head, believing that it would allow water to flow more effectively,” says Marcin, Dorota’s husband. She was not allowed to use the bathroom, and her mother had to ask one of the nurses if her daughter could at least sit down for a few minutes to have a meal.
Dorota spent the next three days in this lying position, with her head lowered below her legs. Marcin wanted to have her transferred to another hospital, but Dr. Wojciech Kuberski, the director of the division of obstetrics and gynecology, claimed that “Kraków hospitals would not accept her, because it was still early in her pregnancy”.
“Afterwards, we wanted to go to Bochnia, to be closer to home,” says Marcin. “The hospital told us we could, but that they would not release us, and we would have to leave at our own request.” After speaking with the hospital psychologist, the family decided to keep Dorota at the hospital.
A protester holding a sign that reads ''Not one more'' during a pro-choice rally in Gdansk in 2021.
An avoidable death
On Monday, May 22nd, Dorota began experiencing headaches, which would last for the following days. Eventually, she had stomachaches as well, and began vomiting. According to her medical records, her CRP levels had been steadily increasing since being admitted to the hospital, pointing to inflammation in her body.
She had spent more than three days in the hospital, prior to her death.
According to information we were provided with, Dorota did not receive any PCT (procalcitonin test, which allows the diagnosis of sepsis) or D-dimer (for cardiovascular disease) testing during her first days in the hospital. These tests were only performed once Dorota’s health had severely declined. Dorota also only underwent an ultrasound exam when she was admitted and on the day that she died.
“One day before her death, doctors measured the heart rate of Dorota’s fetus, assuring us that it was still alive,” Dorota’s husband says. “No one informed us that the death of the fetus was only a matter of time, and that the fact that Dorota’s water had begun to break was dangerous for her."
Dorota died on Wednesday, May 24, at 9:39 AM. Her fetus had died a few hours earlier, according to doctors. At 7:30 AM, medical staff consulted with Professor Herbert Huras, the provincial consultant in gynecology and obstetrics. His decision read: "The patient has qualified for the immediate removal of the uterus, together with the fetus, in accordance with her vital indications."
It is still not known why Dorota was not operated on earlier, in spite of her deteriorating condition. She had spent more than three days in the hospital, prior to her death.
"Obeying the word of God"
Following Dorota’s death, activists of women’s organizations as well as politicians from the Polish opposition have demanded answers: Was her treatment plan influenced by the hospital director’s private political beliefs? And are abortions performed at all in a hospital, directly affiliated to the former pope, who was a staunch opponent of the procedure? Neither of these questions has been answered.
What we do know is that the directors have, as of 2005, announced their opposition to performing abortions — no matter the circumstances.
In 2019, the hospital received relics of the former pope from Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, his once right-hand man.
In fact, according to the religious portal Wiara.pl, the Catholic curia in Poland ordered some hospitals bearing the name of the Polish pope to sign commitments that they would not carry out abortions on their grounds.
After several years, directors of the Nowy Targ hospital never backed out of the declaration, known as a directive on “obeying the word of God”. The moment it was signed was the same time that Marek Wierzba became its new head.
Wierzba is not a doctor, nor does he have education in the medical field. However, in 2018, he became the head of the Health Committee in the regional assembly. Council members, including opposition party member Anna Radwan-Ballada from Civic Platform (PO), praise his work for the Committee: “He attends meetings, he’s very active, and he knows what he’s doing. I have no objections to him."
"More priests than women" on hospital council
Fr. Jan Karlak, the pastor of the John Paul II sanctuary — the first parish named after the Pope — is currently serving on the hospital’s council. The priest is known for declaring his church as free from COVID-19 during the peak of the pandemic.
Following Dorota’s death, protests erupted in the city of Kraków. “There are more priests than women on the hospital’s council,” MP Daria Gosek-Popiołek, who was present at the demonstration, says. Gazeta Wyborcza’s findings show that there are, in fact, no women serving on the council at this moment.
The national consultant in the field of gynecology and obstetrics, prof. Krzysztof Czajkowski, also launched an inspection into the hospital, at the request of the Ministry of Health and the Ombudsman for Patients' Rights.
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