Child denied abortion after uncle’s rape: it could also happen in Malta

But the outrage sparked by this case in a deeply conservative country like Poland further exposes Malta’s international isolation

In Poland, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform is leading the charge for reforming abortion laws
In Poland, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform is leading the charge for reforming abortion laws

In Poland a disabled 14-year-old raped by her own uncle was refused an abortion by two hospitals in her hometown in eastern Poland, because doctors there cited a ‘conscience’ clause. The case has sparked outrage in the conservative, Catholic country.

The girl, who did not understand she was pregnant, was taken by her aunt to doctors who treated them “brutally and inhumanely”, she claimed. The aunt had even provided documents from a prosecutor saying an alleged rape had occurred and an abortion would be lawful, but doctors still turned them away. They were allegedly told: “Not here, go away. We don’t know where. It’s none of our concern.”

The child was only taken to hospital when her relatives discovered the pregnancy. The abortion was later carried out in Warsaw after the intervention of Federa, a women’s rights organisation.

Unlike Malta – where abortion is illegal in all cases – Poland allows abortions in very limited cases; namely in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the women is threatened. Even if the current amendment allowing terminations when the life and health of a women are in grave jeopardy is passed, abortion will remain illegal even in cases like incest and rape.

But the outrage sparked by this case in a deeply conservative country like Poland further exposes Malta’s international isolation. And women in Poland face another obstacle: for doctors can refuse to carry out the procedure when this conflicts with their conscience.

Even Polish health minister Wojciech Andrusiewicz, who hails from the ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party was appalled at the case, insisting that: “such an abortion should either be carried out or the doctors should indicate a place where such an abortion can be carried out, so the hospital acted against the statuary provisions.”

The Polish government insists that the doctors in the two hospitals who turned the young disabled child back, were in breach of the law when they failed to direct the girl to doctors ready to carry out the procedure. But the law is now being challenged by centrist and left-wing opposition parties who want the conscience clause removed.

Women at the mercy of conservative doctors

The case itself puts the conservatism of segments of the medical profession under the spotlight, exposing the risks of laws which deny women agency by giving too much power to doctors, especially those whose judgement is clouded by religious intransigence – food for thought for the Maltese legislators who may be tempted to water down the current bill, by giving the final say to a doctors’ conference instead of leaving decisions in the hands of the woman and her doctor.

Poland was already shocked in 2021 when a woman referred to as ‘Mrs. Izabela’ died in in a hospital in her 22nd week of pregnancy after being diagnosed with a general body infection. In this case the doctors did not perform an abortion, waiting for the foetus to die on its own.

Yet the outrage sparked of these two cases further underlines the unpopularity of Poland’s restrictive abortion law. For while the conservative government remains broadly popular thanks to its assertive foreign policy and economic interventionism, polls show a majority favouring a liberalisation of abortion laws.

PN sister party leads pro-choice campaign

Significantly, the Nationalist Party’s sister party in Poland – Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform – is leading the charge for reforming abortion laws.

The respected EPP politician, who came back to Poland to lead the opposition after a stint as President of the European Council, described the situation in Poland as one in which “in such an obvious case doctors are afraid to make a decision”. He warned that “pregnancies are now in the hands of prosecutors or ruling party politicians”.

Tusk insists that young women who are just starting to think about motherhood should “feel completely safe that the state, the doctor, the law will be on her side.”

“If a woman knows that the State is not the gloomy eye of Sauron that wants to control her, deprive her of rights, deprive her of the possibility of making decisions, if the state is open then women will be more ready to take on the great task of motherhood,” Tusk said.

In February 2021, Civic Platform approved a new policy that would not only undo the near-total abortion ban introduced by Law and Justice, but also make abortions available for women in cases where they face “an extremely difficult personal situation” and “after consultation with a psychologist and doctor”. Tusk was even more categorical in July 2022 when he committed his party to introduce a bill legalising abortion in the first 12 weeks [of pregnancy].

“It should be a decision made by the woman in consultation with a doctor, and not the decision of a priest, prosecutor or PiS [ruling party] activist,” said Tusk. “We will guarantee it 100%.”

This position contrasts with the stance of the local Nationalist Party which is even more extreme than that of Law and Justice; and should also be a wake-up call for Labour, whose timid reform lags far behind the European mainstream whose laws remain even more extreme than those in ultra conservative Poland.