A Polish woman reportedly died in a hospital in Częstochowa this week after she was forced to carry a dead fetus for over seven days. As the city prosecutors’ office investigates the circumstances of her death, Polish activists are blaming the country’s near-total abortion ban, which took effect in 2021, saying doctors are reluctant to carry out abortions even to save a pregnant person’s life for fear of prosecution. This refusal to provide life-saving abortion care has resulted in the death of at least one other Polish woman, called Iza, last year.
The woman who died this week has only been identified as Agnieszka, a 37-year-old mother and wife who is survived by her husband and three children. The hospital says Agnieszka had been pregnant with twin fetuses, one of which died on December 23 last year. Instead of immediately removing the dead fetus to avoid sepsis and other possibly fatal health risks, the hospital said in a statement shared to Polish media that it used “a wait-and-see approach… as there was a chance to save the second child.” However, the second fetus soon died as well, leading the hospital to decide to “terminate the pregnancy” a full week after the first fetus died, on December 31, likely because doctors feared criminal charges for providing an abortion.
After the procedure, Agnieszka became ill. On January 23, she tested positive for covid, and she died on January 25. The hospital claimed it had “taken all possible and required actions to save the lives of the children and the patient”—of course, referring to Agnieszka’s fetuses and not her three living children—and that “doctors’ behaviour was not influenced by anything else other than medical considerations.” No official cause of death has been specified, though Agnieszka’s family believes the cause was septic shock.
In a statement released on social media, her family said they “appeal for justice and redress for the death of our wife, mother, sister and friend,” and say her death is “further evidence that the government has blood on its hands.”
Last November, shortly after the woman named Iza died of pregnancy complications, Poland’s health ministry issued a guidance that said if the pregnant person’s life or health is at risk, doctors “must not be afraid of making obvious decisions” about abortions. But regardless of this guidance, the looming threat of criminalization and imprisonment for providing or receiving abortions means many doctors will simply withhold abortion care. People experiencing pregnancy complications, miscarriage, or stillbirth may fear seeking medical help, as they could be accused of self-inducing an abortion and face criminal charges. Last fall, Poland’s health ministry announced it would start a centralized, digitized registry requiring doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to the government this year. That registry amounts to state surveillance of all pregnant people.
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The threat of pregnancy and abortion criminalization exists in all countries with stringent abortion bans like Poland’s, as well as countries like the U.S., which has (comparably) more liberalized abortion laws. While abortion remains technically legal in the U.S., last year alone saw states enact a record-breaking 108 new abortion restrictions. The legal right to an abortion is hanging on by a thread, and care is widely inaccessible even with Roe v. Wade in place.
In tandem with a surge in abortion bans and restrictions across the U.S., criminal charges for miscarriages, stillbirths, and self-managed abortions have recently tripled from 413 prosecutions between 1973 and 2005, to more than 1,200 between 2006 and 2020, per the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. People of color, and particularly Black and Indigenous people, are more likely to face criminalization for the outcomes of their pregnancies.
There’s a long history of pregnant people, and especially those of color, facing fetal homicide charges if they lose a pregnancy after using drugs. This is due to dangerous interpretations of fetal homicide laws that exist in 38 states, which were originally created to protect pregnant people, as homicide is a leading cause of death for them.
Particularly at a time when more and more people are self-managing their own abortions using highly safe, FDA-approved abortion pills, which induce a miscarriage, abortion bans have the effect of transforming almost any pregnancy outcome into a crime scene, and attaching criminal suspicion to most pregnancies as well. The conservative Supreme Court is currently considering a 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, and has neglected to take any action to reverse Texas’ near-total abortion ban, which has been in effect since September.
And while the U.S. has yet to officially create a federal registry of pregnancies and miscarriages like Poland’s, 46 states and D.C. require some form of reporting abortions to the state government. Certain states also require people to obtain death certificates for their aborted fetuses, which enters their abortions into the public record. And in 2019, the director of Missouri’s health department was outed for tracking state Planned Parenthood patients’ menstrual cycles on a spreadsheet.
We don’t need to look abroad to see the devastating outcomes of state reproductive coercion: Pregnancy criminalization and the surveillance apparatuses necessary to enforce it are already here in the U.S., and America’s alarmingly high maternal mortality rates suggest tragedies like the deaths of Agnieszka and Iza are happening, too.
In the wake of Agnieszka’s death, Polish activists are reportedly organizing protests of the country’s abortion ban as they await the conclusion of the Częstochowa prosecutors’ investigation. Their rallying cry is: “Not a single one more.”