Dorota was 33 years old and in her fifth month of pregnancy when she checked into the Podhalański Szpital Specjyczny John Paul II in Nowy Targ.
On 20 May, her amniotic fluid prematurely drained, and she and her husband sought medical attention. Upon arriving at the hospital, she was told the foetus was alive, but dehydrated.
The woman’s husband told Polish media outlets that she wanted to become a mother.
“This was supposed to be our first child,” he told Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading independent paper in Poland. “We were happy. The pregnancy was going well, no complications. During the night from Saturday to Sunday [on 20 May] the amniotic waters began to break.”
Due to Poland’s near-total ban on abortion — which entails criminal penalties including imprisonment for medical personnel who order and perform abortions — doctors did not begin terminating the pregnancy. According to current legislation, foetal defects are not sufficient grounds for abortion.
Instead, they told her to sit still and “keep her legs up”, ostensibly as a means to return the amniotic fluid into her womb.
Over a period of three days, Dorota’s infection levels steadily climbed, and she complained of a severe headache. The doctors prescribed her paracetamol.
When the foetus has not reached the ability to live outside the pregnant person’s body and anhidrosis occurs, the only way to save the pregnant person’s life is to induce a miscarriage and administer antibiotics and steroids.
On the fourth day after being she was admitted to the hospital, doctors finally confirmed Dorota’s foetus had died, and that she had developed sepsis. Mere hours later, before they were able to act, Dorota herself died.
According to the autopsy, she succumbed to septic shock, the final stage of sepsis, in which the body’s response to an infection ends up harming other organs.
Several doctors have weighed in since Dorota’s death, insisting that saving the foetus was almost impossible, and that not treating her for days amounted to medical neglect.
Now, prosecutors and the patients’ ombudsman in Poland are investigating her death. Her family has alleged that doctors kept them in the dark as to the danger of the situation and didn’t take proper steps to save her. The hospital in Nowy Targ reported the case to the local prosecutor’s office and pledged its full cooperation.
The chilling effect
Two years ago, Poland’s conservative PiS government severely restricted access to abortion, but the law does allow the termination of a pregnancy if the woman’s health or life is in danger.
However, Dorota’s is the second such death reported in southern Poland since last year. In September, a woman identified as Iza died in similar circumstances in a hospital in the town of Pszczyna, leading to nationwide women’s protests under the motto of “Not a Single One More.”
The two cases raise the question of whether Polish doctors are afraid to perform abortions in order to save women suffering difficult pregnancies. Opposition lawmakers said women in the country are concerned for their wellbeing because of the tough law.
“Women in Poland have the right to feel safe and have the right to have confidence in those who are treating them,” said Marcelina Zawisza of the Left party.
“The doctors’ two most basic responsibilities — to protect the life and health of their patients and to do them no harm in the case of pregnant women … are constantly being violated,” said another Left party lawmaker, Magdalena Biejat.
Poland’s example could serve as a cautionary tale for other countries pursuing near-total abortion bans. Currently, several US states are in the process of — or have recently introduced — restrictive anti-abortion laws prohibiting abortion after detecting the so-called foetal heart rate.
American gynaecological societies warn that such regulations would lead to the death of patients or serious injuries to them, such as loss of the uterus.