European Court rules Poland violated a woman’s human rights by refusing genetic tests

The Center for Reproductive Rights reports on a landmark ruling in Europe yesterday:

[T]he European Court of Human Rights ruled that Poland violated a woman’s human rights when she was repeatedly denied a prenatal genetic examination after a doctor discovered fetal irregularities during a sonogram. The test would have informed the woman’s decision on whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. For the first time in its history, the Court specifically found that an abortion-related violation amounted to inhumane and degrading treatment. The Court also cited a violation of the woman’s private life and ordered the Polish government to compensate her.

Poland has incredibly restrictive abortion laws, but they do allow for the procedure in cases of fetal abnormality. This brings up some complex issues, as genetic testing can be used to identify non-fatal abnormalities, so patients can choose not to carry a pregnancy to term if their child would be disabled. This complex issue of eugenics is one to be discussed at the macro level, though – it must still be an individual’s decision if they want to carry their own pregnancy to term.

Doctors clearly acted on their own anti-choice beliefs in this case, as the Irish Times reports:

In the Polish case, the married mother of two had an ultrasound scan when 18 weeks’ pregnant which indicated the foetus was malformed.

She told her family doctor she wished to have an abortion if that was the case, which would have been legal at that stage. Two further scans confirmed malformation was likely and a specialist recommended amniocentesis, a test of the amniotic fluid.

Her family doctor refused to refer her for this test. While he was on duty in the local hospital, she and her husband asked him to terminate the pregnancy, but he refused.

She was then referred to a university hospital in Krakow. The doctor there criticised her for seeking an abortion and refused to sanction genetic tests. She was also informed the hospital refused to carry out abortions.

She had an amniocentesis test 23 weeks into her pregnancy and was told the results would take two weeks. The law only permits abortions on the grounds of foetal abnormality before 24 weeks.

When the tests confirmed Turner syndrome, she again asked for an abortion, but was told it was too late. She later gave birth to a child with the condition.

The court noted Poland needs to ensure patients can access diagnostic procedures.

This is an important victory in a country with not only incredibly restrictive abortion laws, but widespread violation even of those laws that prevents patients from accessing the procedure.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • trickie

    I’m sorry feministingbut for the first time ever I actually have to say that I am completely disgusted with your coverage of the topic and shows a degree of hypocrisy that is extremely troubling. Recently on your site there was an article speaking against the Indian practice of sex selective abortions. Here however disability is apparently an exception choosing who lives and who dies that is perfectly acceptable. Though I applaud the international support for abortion rights, I cannot in this case condone their reasons. I can only be immensely grateful that neither of my disabilities can currently be tested for genetically. Why is it wrong to abort selectively if it produces a girl when they wanted a boy but perfectly all right if he initially wanted child turns out to be disabled? I mean to play devil’s advocate in both cases the parent may suffer, in India more daughters causes hardships parents (and globally so does having a child with a disability) you conclude this article with it always being necessary to remember that a woman’s right to choose be the foremost consideration. This is and strictly black and white take on the pro-choice movement that ignores the masses of gray area and in this case quite simply put you have it wrong.

  • Neil

    Interesting case.

    While one might consider it morally wrong to selectively abort for eugenic reasons, it would not be administrable under law to prevent parents from aborting their children because they have a disability or are of a disfavored sex. Anyway, if one is really committed to the pro choice position, it really doesn’t matter why a person is having an abortion, the reason can be silly or wrongheaded but it is up to the person. As Jos suggests, you can wish people would make different choices in these situations without wanting to limit their choice by force of law, and you could want to change social attitudes about females and disabled persons to facilitate the making of different choices.

    The other issue it brings up, at least tangentially, is the availability of abortion in the context of a very Catholic state like Poland or Ireland. While a woman has a right to choose an abortion in general, in those countries many doctors may conscientiously object. While they have a duty to perform an abortion that is medically indicated, it is arguable whether her right to choose creates an obligation upon those doctors to perform elective abortions.

  • jade

    discussing whether disabled children or girl children should or should not be aborted is for me, another more subtle way of blaming victims.

    a woman knows whether she has the skills and means to care for a disabled child, or a child (even a girl child) who comes with more risks and more costs.

    some people may use abortion in ways which are depressing and difficult to deal with. we can talk about a woman’s right to choose, but the idea of multiple girl foetuses or those with mild disability being aborted by women who could afford to keep them, or who could ‘learn a lot’ from accepting the child…

    but if the alternative at present is for a woman to have a child which she is not willing or able to parent, well what are the consequences? before we even get into imagining a culture where women are burdened with children they don’t want or can’t care for, what about the higher death rate for girl children who are born into cultures with a ‘preference’ against them? earlier abortion seems better to starvation or being put into an orphanage to experience neglect, malnutrition and developmental delays.

    at a talk about the work she was doing in mongolia to set up cleaner, workable orphanages, my friend told us that some unwanted children are sold for the price of a bottle of vodka, or end up, unsurprisingly, at the front steps of the orphanages, which are usually severely under funded. the children end up with developmental delays and malnutrition.

    and what about the terrible disadvantages faced by people living with disability? even in a first world country the outcomes for more severely disabled people are sometimes very sad. it takes a family with the means and the ability to support them, and with access to the right resources, to adequately support some people living with severe disability to live lives of meaning, not just endless disadvantage and marginalisation. at present, statistics show that someone with a disability, due to increased vulnerability and lack of community support, is at an exponentially higher risk of sexual abuse, violence, lack of education and lifelong dependency on others.

    i have a disability, and i never wish i wasn’t born! but i do recognise that my story is one of great luck, and especially luck that it is a relatively minor one.

    the only answer to me is to work together to support, provide opportunities for education and financial stability, and change cultural views about disability and the rights of girl children.

    the ironic and very tragic thing is that girl children may become much more highly sought after in the next 10 or 20 years when it is discovered that there are too many men, putting women in a position of greater bargaining.

  • jade

    ps. what i meant by the opening line, is that whether it is sex selection or disability selection abortions, they both seem to come from a fairly similar place: a place where people are making choices based on the rewards and risks associated with their pregnancy.

    as a feminist i want to understand why other women would use sex selection or disability selection, rather than be outraged by another woman’s choice. it is equally sad whether a woman terminates a girl child or a disabled child when she would carry a healthy boy child to term.

    for me it is clear that when people are overburdened they make harsher choices -whether they are burdened because of cultural pressure or because of financial pressure. but we can’t pretend that these pressures don’t exist and that it is purely and ideological issue; if a family in india feels that a boy child will give them a better chance of financial security, well that is a very real issue; many terminations occur because of lack of money to support another child.