Poland clamps down on hospitals refusing to perform abortions

Clinic that denied termination to woman whose pregnancy may have endangered her life fined €127,000

Demonstrators protest in Warsaw against Poland's abortion laws. Poland has one of Europe's most restrictive termination laws and all abortion is banned except in cases of rape and incest, or when the mother's life or health is considered at risk. Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Polish authorities have imposed a significant fine on a hospital for denying an abortion to a woman whose pregnancy may have endangered her life, marking a shift in a country with some of the strictest termination rules in Europe.

Poland's previous nationalist government introduced a near-total ban on abortion in 2021 and embedded conservative social values in law during its eight-year rule.

Abortion issues have sparked mass protests in recent years and women's rights played a key role in the 2023 election campaign that brought a pro-European coalition government to power.

The 41-year-old woman, who was 14 weeks pregnant, sought an abortion at Pabianice Medical Centre.


“The woman presented a certificate from a psychiatrist, which clearly stated that continuing this pregnancy was a threat to her health or life,” Antonina Lewandowska of Federa, the Foundation for Women and Family Planning said.

Despite this, the hospital requested additional documentation and refused to perform the abortion. She ended up getting it at a different hospital.

The National Health Fund deemed the refusal unlawful and fined the hospital 550,000 zlotys (€127,000). The medical centre plans to appeal the decision.

Andrzej Troszynski, a spokesman for the fund, said that audit proceedings concerning two other medical facilities were being carried out. Health minister Izabela Leszczyna said both proceedings were nearing completion and could result in penalties.

“We have reached a situation where those hospitals that follow the law are celebrated as something special. This is a situation turned on its head. We hope that the decision to punish this hospital will be the beginning of the end of this trend,” said Ms Lewandowska.

The de facto ban introduced in 2021 allowed terminations only in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother's health or life. However, even in these situations, women often faced the "conscience clause," permitting doctors to refuse abortions on moral grounds.

To address this, prime minister Donald Tusk’s government recently introduced a regulation to penalise publicly-funded medical centres that refuse legal procedures with fines up to 2 per cent of their funding.

“The regulation that has now ( entered into force indicates that a medical entity must organise its work in such a way that there is always a doctor in this entity who will be able to perform the legal termination,” said Urszula Rygowska-Nastulak from the office of the patients’ rights ombudsman.

However, the issue remains divisive even within the ruling coalition, which includes both left-wing politicians and Christian conservatives

In April, parliament sent four bills to liberalise abortion laws to a bipartisan committee, showing cooperation within Mr Tusk’s coalition despite deep splits over the issue. The process may extend until a new president is elected next year, with current President Andrzej Duda expected to veto any changes to abortion legislation. - Reuters

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2024