Poland's abortion dilemma

A Polish woman who was refused an abortion despite doctors' warnings that giving birth could damage her eyesight has taken Poland to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. She claims that the country failed to protect her rights under its strict abortion law. Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and abortions are only very rarely approved. Iwona Lejman looks at the ethical issues confronting Poland's doctors:

While for most mothers giving birth is a blessing, for some it is a question of life and death. A recent case has led to doubts as to whether this is taken into consideration in Poland. A single woman from Warsaw became pregnant, but because of her serious eyesight condition, she knew that by having a baby she could go blind. Alicja Tysiac applied for the right to terminate her pregnancy on health grounds, but she was refused. As a result, she has nearly lost her eyesight. She argues that due to the doctors' refusal, her private life collapsed, she received inhuman and degrading treatment and was discriminated on the basis of her sex and disability.

Poland is a predominantly Catholic country. Its abortion law is one of the strictest in Europe and termination is illegal except when there's a threat to the mother's or the fetus's health or when a woman was subjected to rape. However, in practice, the law is hardly ever observed. All in all there are around 200 abortions a year in Poland, according to Wanda Nowicka of the Federation for Women and Family Planning:

"This law is even more restrictive in practice than on paper. In the last few years that the law has been in place, we have observed that a pregnant woman does not enjoy the same right to health as a woman who is not pregnant. A pregnant woman is immediately treated as a potential mother - when she needs an abortion, she is very often denied it and when she continues the pregnancy she does not get treatment in order not to hurt the fetus. So, basically, the life of the fetus is seen as superior to the mother's life or her health."

When Alicja Tysiac - now 35 - discovered she was pregnant for the third time, she consulted doctors in February 2000 who told her that she faced a serious risk to her eyesight if she carried the pregnancy to term. However, they refused to grant her an abortion certificate. Following the delivery by Caesarian section her eyesight deteriorated abruptly due to what was diagnosed as retinal hemorrhage. The woman cannot see objects more than 1.5 metres away. She has registered as disabled, is dependent on constant help and unable to raise children. Alicja tells me her story looking through thick and powerful glasses:

"I was told that with my health condition I should be under constant care, but the fact is that I have to look after my three children and am not getting help from anyone. With my pension of 140 euros a month I can't make ends meet. I can't even afford medicines that my son needs."

Alicja Tysiac lodged a criminal complaint against the Warsaw hospital's chief obstetrician, but the district prosecutor decided there was no link between the doctor's decision and her worsening vision.

"Before the case started I was told it had already been lost."

Now she hopes that the European Court of Human Rights will have the final word in such abortion cases in Poland:

"I am happy that this case will be discussed so widely now and I hope it will make doctors think twice before they next refuse an abortion to a pregnant woman in my condition."

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Wanda Nowicka of Federation for Women says pregnant woman are not treated on equal terms with other patients. Since Poland freed itself from communist rule there has been a lot of pressure from church circles. She claims that doctors are being hypocritical.

"Certainly, the role of the Roman Catholic Church is instrumental in promoting this kind of an attitude within the medical community and among lawyers in Poland. However, apart from that, I think it is linked to a certain hypocrisy of the medical community. They pretend that they are very moral by not providing abortions but, at the same time, many of them perform 'underground abortions' in secret for large amounts of money."

Doctors themselves look at the matter from another angle. Krzysztof Niemiec, a gynecologist, stresses that the situation is particularly difficult for those who as Catholic doctors face a real moral and ethical dilemma, not to mention the pressure of the environment:

"I think we are overestimating the influence of the Catholic Church and the problem of abortion. The situation in Poland today is not convenient for women but it is very convenient for many organizations, the Church, politicians, and for gynecologists because they can make abortions illegall. That is why I think the situation won't change soon."

The European Court of Human Rights obviously cannot change the Polish abortion law, but it could rule that Alicja Tysiac's rights have been violated.