“The refusal to be treated effectively while she was in great pain and her life was at risk was humiliating and debasing.”
Agata, a Polish lawyer in her twenties, started experiencing symptoms as nausea and abdominal pains, in 2003. She kept visiting doctor who failed to diagnose her condition and treated her with painkillers. In 2004, Agata became pregnant. It was a wanted pregnancy and she was engaged to be married in July 2004. Although her doctor believed that her abdominal pains were pregnancy-related, Agata’s condition worsened when she was about five weeks pregnant. She checked in to the hospital with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea with blood, and subsequently was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC).
UC is a disease that causes inflammation and sores in the rectum and colon; it is not a disease caused by pregnancy. During hospitalization, she received minimal treatment with steroids and was sent home. Shortly later, Agata’s condition again worsened and she returned to the hospital. Her treating doctors failed to carry out further diagnostic tests, such as a full endoscopy, to determine the extent and location of her UC, and to decide on the proper course of treatment. Instead, she was transferred from hospital to hospital to be sent home again several weeks later, without steps having been taken to properly diagnose and provide care for her disease. Agata’s condition only deteriorated and four stays, totaling six weeks in four different hospitals followed in the months of July and August. While she developed abscesses that had to be surgically removed, more extensive testing and aggressive treatment were denied. One doctor told Agata’s mother that her daughter was “too interested in her own ass instead of being interested in something else,” the ‘something else’ being her pregnancy. When the pain became unbearable and the woman was begging for painkillers, she was given paracetamol “due to the best interest of the baby”. Although abortion is not a consideration in giving proper treatment in this situation, other doctors told Agata they could not treat her because their “conscience did not allow” them. None of Agata’s doctors registered their conscientious objection. They also failed to refer her to a doctor that would give her the treatment she needed. The refusal to be treated effectively while she was in great pain and her life was at risk was humiliating and debasing.
In early September 2004, Agata was again hospitalized, this time with sepsis (blood poisoning) and symptoms of organ dysfunction. Doctors also diagnosed that her fetus was dead. Despite many surgeries removing pus, the sepsis became more severe and her kidneys failed. After months of extreme pain and humiliation received at the hands of her doctors, Agata died in late September of a condition that could have been controlled with proper and timely treatment.
Agata died after she was denied access to lawful abortion. According to restrictive Polish law, abortion is permitted at any stage of the pregnancy when the life or health of the woman is in danger; abortion is legal until viability when there is a high probability of a severe or irreversible fetal impairment; and abortion is permitted during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy when the pregnancy is the result of a crime. However, in seeking to exercise their legal right, even women who meet the legal criteria for abortion usually encounter obstacles that are impossible to overcome.
Two months after Agata died, her mother filed a criminal complaint against the hospitals and doctors responsible for her lack of treatment. After a protracted, ineffective investigation by the public prosecutor that focused not on determining liability for her daughter’s death, but on whether an abortion had been necessary to treat her, the case was dismissed in September of 2008, despite an appeal to the court. To date, Agata’s mother has also not received effective redress in a civil suit she filed.
Agata’s mother contacted the hotline of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, and subsequently, with the support of Polish counsel from the University of Warsaw Law Clinic and the Reproductive Rights Legal Network of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, and in cooperation with the Center for Reproductive Rights, she filed a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights in September 2008. The case has been filed as Z v. Poland (no. 46123/08, Eur.Ct.H.R. (2008)). The case argues that Poland violated the right to life, right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, right to respect for private life, rights to an effective remedy and right to be free from discrimination (under the European Convention for Human Rights). The ruling of the ECtHR is expected at any time.