“I hope I don’t get sepsis because then I won’t leave this place,” the 30-year-old wrote in a series of distraught text messages to her mother just 12 hours before her death.
Isabela was hospitalized after a premature birth at 22 weeks pregnant.
Just weeks before, she had been told that her unborn child had Edwards syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Most of those diagnosed with this disease will die before birth; her doctor told her to prepare for that outcome.
Isabela was heartbroken, her sister-in-law Barbara Scrobol told CNN. She really wanted a child, a brother for her 9-year-old daughter.
But after being diagnosed with a fetal anomaly, Isabela asked for an abortion for medical reasons.
“They went to the doctors in Poland and asked if they could terminate the pregnancy,” Scrobol said. “They said no.” Then, when she was about to go abroad, her water broke.
Lying in a hospital bed in Pszczyna, southern Poland, Isabela explained to her mother that doctors waited for the fetus’s heart to stop beating before they could operate on her by caesarean section in an attempt to avoid sepsis, a life-threatening disease caused by the body’s reaction to an infection. .
“My life is in danger,” she wrote in one of the text messages.
“Doctors cannot help while the fetus is alive thanks to the anti-abortion law,” she wrote. “A woman is like an incubator.”
When the scan showed that the fetus had died, Isabela was taken to the operating room. But on the way there, Isabela’s heart stopped and, according to her family’s lawyer, she died.
But the cause of death has not been officially released. And it is not clear why Isabela’s doctors did not have an abortion.
For nearly three decades, abortion in the predominantly Catholic country was only allowed under three circumstances: if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, if the mother’s life was in danger, or if the fetus was abnormal.
But when the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015, they promised to tighten the law even further, saying they would remove the fetal anomaly exception, the most commonly used case of legal abortions, which accounted for 98% of all known legal abortions performed in Poland in 2019, according to the Polish Ministry of Health.
The parliamentary opposition prevented the party from amending the law. But in October 2020, Poland’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, ruled that it is illegal for women to terminate a pregnancy in the event of fetal abnormalities, stating that the exception constitutes “eugenic practice.”
A year after this decision, Isabela died.
Since then, the regional prosecutor’s office in Katowice opened a preliminary criminal investigation.
Polish President Andrzej Duda spoke out on Isabela’s case during a press conference last year, asking why the abortion had not been performed and why her life had not been saved.
“The doctors at the hospital did not perform an abortion, so you have to answer why this happened and why the woman’s life was not saved,” Duda said.
The Pszczyna County Hospital denies any malpractice. No further details of this case will be discussed with CNN.
In a statement on its website posted in November, the hospital said the doctors involved in the case were suspended while the investigation continued.
The hospital said: “Doctors and midwives did everything in their power and fought a painful struggle for the patient and her child.”
The hospital said they share the pain of everyone affected by Isabela’s death, especially her family.
“It should … be emphasized that … all medical decisions were made taking into account the legal norms and norms of behavior in force in Poland,” the hospital said.
The Polish government defended the law in a statement to CNN saying, “Aborting a pregnancy remains legal when a woman’s life is in danger.”
“It is very difficult to be a woman in Poland”
Poland and Malta are the only European Union member states with very strict abortion laws.
Nikodem Bernachak, a legal analyst at the Ordo Juris Legal Culture Institute, a conservative anti-abortion pressure group, told CNN the law is about constitutional compliance.
“The Constitutional Court has decided that every human life also means a pre-born life,” Bernacak said.
But reproductive rights activists say Poland’s increasingly stringent abortion laws have put women like Isabela in danger.
Activist and doula Justyna Wydzhinska of the abortion rights network Aborcyjny Dream Team (ADT) is facing three years in prison for sending abortion pills to a pregnant woman who claims she has been abused in the home. Wyjinska admits she helped the woman but has pleaded not guilty and is due to stand trial in July.
“This is how patriarchy works here, taking away reproductive rights,” Wydzynska told CNN. “It’s very difficult to be a woman in Poland.”
In Poland, it is allowed to take abortion pills on one’s own, but not to help others.
Wydzynska said women in Poland have been attacked in an unprecedented way. Women considering abortion no longer seek medical advice, she said, explaining that instead they turn to activists like her for help.
“It is scary that the responsibility for these people lies with us,” she said. “They don’t have psychological support.”
Some of the most difficult calls she’s had to take come from women like Isabela who have tests showing fetal abnormalities and who know they must continue to carry a fetus they know won’t survive birth.
“Sometimes it’s hard for us to listen to it,” she said. “They should leave the country as criminals and seek help elsewhere.”
Last year, ADT and Abortion Without Borders helped 1,540 Polish women travel abroad for abortions, Wydzynska said.
Dr. Magdalena Datsch of the Warsaw Institute of Women’s Health said the law penalizes Poland’s poorest residents by noting the financial burden of women who choose to travel abroad for abortions.
“It’s a huge disparity because not everyone has the money to go to Slovakia to have an abortion, and as a doctor, I have to help everyone equally — so it only hurts more,” she said.
Dutch says that even in Poland, the law is tantamount to a “lottery of seats” for women whose pregnancy could endanger their lives.
“If you live in Warsaw and you can come to this hospital where we are open and we talk about it… we may have a slightly different interpretation of the law and we are not afraid,” she said.
But the law has already had a deterrent effect, she said.
Activists say women are often reluctant to seek help, and some doctors worry about the consequences of having an abortion if they are perceived as being too hasty to suggest an abortion, even in situations where the mother’s life is in danger, as in Isabela’s case.
Dutch told CNN she couldn’t understand the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to reverse the decision against Rowe. Wade. For her, the decision to have an abortion is a fundamental right.
“It shocks me that women are being robbed of that freedom of choice,” she says—even in the United States, which she considered a country of “freedom.”
Anna Odzieniak of CNN contributed to the story.