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Poland: When "conscience clauses" mean women die

Date: 3 May 2010
Source: Anna Wilkowska-Landowska, RHRealityCheck.org


A 25-year-old Polish pregnant woman died of septic shock because doctors were afraid she could miscarry and refused to fully examine her. In May 2004, early in her pregnancy, she developed ulcerative colitis. She was repeatedly admitted to a number of hospitals, and certain examinations such as a colonoscopy were not performed because doctors were afraid of endangering the fetus. She was given medication, and in July was diagnosed with an abscess for which three operations to remove it were performed. During her stay in a hospital a doctor told her she should be taking care of her pregnancy rather than her own health problems. This humiliated and angered her. The woman's mother and partner urged the doctor at a clinic to commence any necessary treatment, irrespective of the consequences for fetus, to save the woman's life. These demands produced no result. The woman lost the fetus in September 2004 and died two weeks later of septic shock.


Seeking justice in the Polish courts proved to be ineffective, so her mother turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg where she is currently an applicant, represented by the Network of Lawyers of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in collaboration with the Centre for Reproductive Rights. The court is asking whether Poland violated the patient's right to life or freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment by making her suffer. It also seeks to clarify international guidelines for conscientious objection and asks the court to affirm that conscientious objection may not be invoked by institutions such as hospitals.