Litigation Briefing Series

The Litigation Briefing Series provides summaries and background information on high-impact cases that seek to strengthen legal protections for women’s reproductive rights in courts and human rights bodies around the world.

RR v. Poland, P & S v. Poland, and Z v. Poland
Human Rights Violations Caused By Exceedingly Restrictive Abortion Law

The three cases against Poland before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR or Court) discussed in this toolkit, R.R. v. Poland decided by the Court in 2011 and P & S v. Poland and Z v. Poland still pending, together with Tysiąc v. Poland decided by the Court in 2007, highlight the dangers and human rights violations to which Poland’s exceedingly restrictive and unclear abortion law framework exposes women. The country’s failure to implement the legal provisions that do allow women to terminate their pregnancy in limited circumstances exacerbates the situation.

The case R.R. v. Poland centers on a woman who was repeatedly refused diagnostic care while pregnant after a routine sonogram detected a cyst on the fetus’s neck. Genetic tests were repeatedly stalled, preventing her from obtaining timely information on the health of the fetus and hindering her from seeking a legal abortion.

In April 2008, P, then 14 years old, was raped by a classmate. P and her mother, S, reported the rape to the police the next day. P was referred to a health clinic for an examination. Despite her youth and the fact that she was raped, she was not offered emergency contraception, which could have prevented pregnancy. P was legally entitled to an abortion under Polish law, but when she sought one, with the support of her mother, she was denied timely and professional medical attention, continuously harassed by clergy and health care personnel, and temporarily removed from her mother’s custody.

In Z v. Poland, healthcare providers denied diagnostic care and necessary treatment to a pregnant woman suffering from ulcerative colitis, in part because they were afraid properly treating her might harm the fetus. Numerous hospitals and doctors refused to provide medical care, resulting in a miscarriage and ultimately the woman’s unnecessary death.

With the three groundbreaking cases discussed in this toolkit, and as shown by the RR decision, the ECtHR has the opportunity to hold the country to account for its continuing violations of women’s human rights. The significance of these cases reaches beyond Poland; they will set an example in the region, emphasizing that restrictive abortion laws and lack of implementation to the detriment of women’s rights are incompatible with international law.

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