Polish abortion ban spotlights overlooked hospices

Warsaw (AFP) –


In the wake of Poland's near-total ban on abortions, the need for support for pregnant women with severe foetal defects is greater than ever but few know there are specialised clinics they can turn to for help.

The founder of the biggest of about 20 perinatal hospices in Poland said that women were often failing to be informed about the palliative care offered by the centres after a diagnosis.

"Patients continue to not be told they have the option of psychological support," Joanna Szymkiewicz-Dangel, who set up the Warsaw Perinatal Hospice two decades ago, told AFP.

"Doctors themselves don't know that something like this exists... Some even believe it's a waste of state funds," the pediatric and foetal cardiologist said.

For decades in the devout Catholic country, Polish women had the option to terminate a pregnancy after discovering a foetal anomaly.

But the Constitutional Court ruled against abortions in such cases late last year.

The verdict triggered mass protests nationwide and imposed a near-total ban on terminations, with the only exceptions being instances of rape or incest and when the mother's health is in danger.

Run by an NGO, the Warsaw hospice offers counselling, medical tests and classes on parenting a sick child, helping more than 400 women every year.

It relies on state funds and donations to provide the services free of charge, and in some cases, doctors volunteer their time.

With legal abortion out of the equation, some women diagnosed with severe foetal defects may end up going abroad to terminate or undergoing the procedure illegally.

But for the rest, perinatal hospice care can "ensure the pregnancy continues under the best possible conditions for the woman and child," Szymkiewicz-Dangel said.

The hospices have recently been the focus of a national billboard campaign.

Financed by an anti-abortion group, most of the posters show a huge image of a foetus in a heart-shaped womb, widely viewed as an emotional tactic against terminations.

Even so, say the hospices, which have nothing to do with the promotion, the awareness campaign has done little to get the message out to the women in need.

- 'Time is of the essence ' -

The government is planning to implement a package of measures later this year to boost perinatal care following the abortion ban.

It has said it will create more perinatal hospices as well as provide additional care for pregnant women with foetal defects within hospitals and offer a helpline with "family assistants" on hand to provide advice.

"Time is of the essence," Family Affairs Minister Marlena Malag told parliament earlier this week.

"I think that it will happen in the first half of this year... It's the challenge of our time. We've held all the talks, the legislation is ready."

- Emptiness, despair, sadness -

Warsaw resident Kamila Lewandowska-Nowak, 39, says the hospice made a huge difference to her, even though her pregnancy dates back to before the abortion ban.

Before being pregnant with her third child, she said she had never heard of perinatal palliative care.

She had always "associated the word 'hospice' with a place where older people passed away," she said.

When she and her husband, Adam, learned their unborn son had Edwards' syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes severe developmental disabilities, she said she was asked multiple times if she would like to terminate the pregnancy, something she never considered.

But only one doctor, she said, directed her towards the Warsaw hospice for an ultrasound of the baby's heart and a psychological consultation.

The help proved invaluable when Lewandowska-Nowak learned there was no heartbeat in the last trimester.

"Emptiness, despair, sadness and a million other emotions buzzed around in me. But I also felt this powerlessness -- what do I tell the kids?" she said.

"So I called the hospice, the psychologist, and she very thoroughly advised me what to do."

She also attended the centre's grief support group and is grateful for any opportunity to talk about her son to keep his memory alive.

Now, having taken the time to grieve properly, the couple are expecting again -- eight months along with a healthy baby boy.