Europe's human rights court on Tuesday upheld a challenge to Poland's restrictive abortion rules by a woman whose eyesight was severely damaged during childbirth after she was denied permission to have an abortion.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Poland has no effective legal framework for pregnant women to assert their right to abortion on medical grounds.
The court awarded the 36-year-old Pole EUR25,000, or about US$33,250, in damages after doctors refused to grant her permission to terminate her pregnancy despite serious risk to her eyesight. It said doctors in Poland were often reluctant to authorize an abortion in the absence of transparent and clearly defined rules.
"The court concluded that Polish law ... did not contain any effective mechanism capable of determining whether the conditions for obtaining a lawful abortion had been met," the court said in its judgment.
The ruling means Poland will have to introduce clearer guidelines on abortion law on medical grounds. As a member of the Council of Europe, Poland is obliged to abide by the court's judgments.
Alicja Tysiac, who suffers from severe myopia, became pregnant for the third time in 2000. Three ophthalmologists she consulted each concluded her eyesight would be damaged further if she carried the pregnancy to term. However, they refused to issue a certificate for the pregnancy to be terminated on medical grounds, despite Tysiac's requests, the court said.
With her myopia worsening, she consulted more doctors, but was not allowed to terminate her pregnancy, delivering her third baby by Caesarean in November 2000.
After the delivery, her eyesight deteriorated considerably as a result of what was diagnosed as a retinal hemorrhage, the court said. A panel of doctors concluded that her condition required treatment and daily assistance and declared her to be significantly disabled.
Lawyers for Poland's Health Ministry were analyzing the ruling to determine whether they will file an appeal. They will likely have a decision in the coming days, ministry spokesman Pawel Trzecinski said.
If the lawyers decide not to appeal, the ministry will pay the award, Trzecinski said. There was no indication as to whether the government would consider changes to the law.
Polish Interior Minister Ludwik Dorn refused to comment on the ruling during a news conference, saying he did not know the facts or the legal situation.
Abortion is prohibited in Poland, a staunchly Catholic country, except under certain conditions for medical purposes. It is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in jail.
"Thousands of women are denied abortions that they are legally entitled to in Poland every year," said Wanda Nowicka, president of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning.
The Polish government has three months to appeal the verdict, reports AP.
The ultraconservative League of Polish Families, a junior partner in the governing coalition, is campaigning for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all cases, including rape and incest.