Izabela Sajbor knew for weeks that the baby she was carrying was unlikely to live long. On September 22 last year, she realized both their fates were sealed.
“I hope I won’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 she died.
Izabela had been admitted to the hospital after going into premature labor when she was 22 weeks pregnant.
Just a few weeks before, she had been told that her unborn baby had Edwards’ Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Most diagnosed with the condition will die before they are born; her doctor told her to prepare for that outcome.
Izabela was heartbroken, her sister-in-law Barbara Skrobol told CNN. She had very much wanted the baby, a sibling for her 9-year-old daughter.
But after the fetal abnormality diagnosis, Izabela asked for an abortion on medical grounds.
“They went to the doctors in Poland and asked if they could terminate the pregnancy, said Skrobol. “They said ‘no.” Then as she was looking to travel abroad, her waters broke.
From her hospital bed in Pszczyna, southern Poland, Izabela explained to her mother that the doctors were waiting for the fetus’ heart to stop beating before they could operate on her via cesarean section in an attempt to avoid sepsis – a life threatening illness caused by the body’s response to an infection.
“My life is in danger,” she said in one text message.
“The doctors can’t help as long as the fetus is alive thanks to the anti-abortion law,” she wrote. “A woman is like an incubator.”
When a scan showed that the fetus had died, Izabela was taken to the operating room. But on her way there, Izabela went into cardiac arrest, and died, according to her family’s lawyer.
But no official cause of death has been released. And, it’s unclear why Izabela’s doctors did not perform an abortion.
Her family says Izabela is the first victim of the latest tightening of Poland’s abortion laws, already among the most restrictive in Europe.
For nearly three decades, abortion in the predominately Catholic country had only been allowed under three circumstances: If the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, if the mother’s life was at risk, or in the case of fetal abnormalities.
But when the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party came into power in 2015, they pledged to tighten the law even further, saying they would remove the fetal abnormality exception, the most frequently used case for legal abortion, which accounted for 98% of all known legal abortions carried out in Poland in 2019, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Health.
Parliamentary opposition prevented the party from amending the law. But in October 2020, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal – the country’s highest court – ruled it was unconstitutional for women to terminate pregnancies in the case of fetal abnormalities, saying that that the exception constituted “eugenic practices.”
Within a year of that ruling, Izabela was dead.
A preliminary criminal investigation has since been opened by the regional prosecutor’s office in Katowice.
Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, weighed in on Izabela’s case during a press conference last year, asking why an abortion was not performed, and why her life was not saved.
“The doctors in the hospital did not perform the abortion, so you have to answer why it happened and why the woman’s life was not saved,” Duda said.
Pszczyna County Hospital denies any malpractice took place. It would not discuss any further details about the case with CNN.
In a statement on its website, posted in November, the hospital wrote that the doctors involved in the case have been suspended while the investigation continues.
The hospital said: “Doctors and midwives did everything in their power and fought a harrowing fight for the Patient and her Child.”
The hospital said it shared the pain of all those affected by Izabela’s death, especially her family.
“It should … be emphasized that … all medical decisions were made taking into account the legal provisions and standards of conduct in force in Poland,” the hospital said.
The Polish government defended the law in a statement to CNN saying, “The termination of pregnancy remains legal where a woman’s life is at risk.”
‘It is really hard to be a woman in Poland’
Poland and Malta are the only European Union member states that maintain highly restrictive abortion laws.
Nikodem Bernaciak, a legal analyst at the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, a conservative anti-abortion pressure group, told CNN the law is about upholding the constitution.
“A constitutional court decided that every human life means also pre-born life,” Bernaciak said.
But reproductive rights activists say Poland’s increasingly stringent abortion laws have put women like Izabela in danger.
Activist and doula Justyna Wydrzynska, from the abortion rights network, Aborcyjny Dream Team (ADT) is facing three years in jail for sending abortion pills to a pregnant woman who said she was being subjected to domestic violence. Wydrzynska admits to assisting the woman but has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in July.
“This is how the patriarchy works here, taking away reproductive rights,” Wydrzynska told CNN. “It is really hard to be a woman in Poland.”
It’s legal in Poland to self-administer abortion pills, but not to assist others.
Wydrzynska said women in Poland were under unprecedented attack. Women contemplating abortion now shy away from seeking advice from doctors, she said, explaining that they are coming to activists like her for help instead.
“It is frightening that the responsibility for those people lies with us,” she said. “They don’t have the psychological support.”
Some of the hardest calls she has had to field are from women like Izabela who have had tests showing fetal abnormalities, and who know that they must continue to carry a fetus they know will not survive birth.
“It is sometimes hard for us to listen to this,” she said. “They have to leave the country as a kind of criminal, and they have to search for help in other places.”
Last year ADT and Abortions Without Borders helped 1,540 women in Poland travel abroad for abortions, according to Wydrzynska.
Dr. Magdalena Dutsch, from the Warsaw Women’s Institute for Health, said the law is penalizing Poland’s poorest, noting the financial burden for women who opt to travel outside the country for abortions.
“This is huge inequality because not everyone has money to go to Slovakia to get an abortion and as a doctor, I’m supposed to help everyone equally – so that just hurts even more,” she said.
Even inside Poland, Dutsch says the law amounts to a “location lottery” for women whose pregnancies might put their lives at risk.
“If you live in Warsaw and you can come to this hospital where we are open and we talk about it … we have maybe a bit different interpretation of the law and we are not afraid,” she said.
But the law has already had a chilling effect, she said.
Activists say women are often reluctant to ask for help and some doctors worry about the consequences of performing an abortion if they are perceived as being too quick to offer an abortion, even in situations where the mother’s life is in danger – like in Izabela’s case.
Dutsch told CNN she can’t make sense of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade. To her, the decision to have an abortion is a fundamental right.
“It shocks me that this freedom of choice is taken away from women,” she says – even in the United States, which she had thought of as the land of “freedom.”
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Anna Odzeniak contributed reporting.