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Marking major shift, Poland cracks down on hospitals refusing to perform abortions

Anti-abortion demonstrators protest against liberalizing Poland's strict law on abortion, in Warsaw, Poland on April 14, 2024. (Czarek Sokolowski / AP Photo) Anti-abortion demonstrators protest against liberalizing Poland's strict law on abortion, in Warsaw, Poland on April 14, 2024. (Czarek Sokolowski / AP Photo)
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WARSAW -

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 Center.

"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 told Reuters.

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 (US$136,578). The Medical Center plans to appeal the decision.

Andrzej Troszynski, a spokesperson 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 Lewandowska.

De facto ban

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, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk's government recently introduced a regulation to penalize publicly funded medical centres that refuse legal procedures with fines up to two per cent  of their funding.

"The regulation that has now (late May) entered into force indicates that a medical entity must organize its work in such a way that there is always a doctor in this entity who will be able to perform the legal termination," says 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 lawmakers and Christian conservatives.

In April, parliament sent four bills to liberalize abortion laws to a bipartisan committee, showing cooperation within Tusk's coalition despite deep splits over the issue.

The process may extend until a new president is elected next year, with current Polish President Andrzej Duda expected to veto any changes to abortion legislation.

(Reporting by Barbara Erling Editing by Christina Fincher)

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