The European Court of Human Rights has issued a judgement adverse to freedom of conscience and ordered Poland to pay two complainants, a mother and daughter, a total of 61,000 Euros in damages and costs. Subject to the possibility that the English translation of the judgement is faulty, the use of the term “anti-choice activist” by the judges brings their impartiality into question. However, the facts of the case outlined in the judgement suggest that the conduct of Polish health care personnel, anti-abortion activists, clergy and state authorities effectively guaranteed an adverse outcome.
A 14 year old girl, P. supported by her mother, S., sought an abortion for a pregnancy alleged to have been the result of a rape. While she obtained the necessary prosecutor’s certificate for the procedure, mother and daughter received contradictory information from two public hospitals in Lublin. Further, health care personnel clearly violated principles of patient confidentiality and informed consent in an effort to dissuade the girl from having an abortion. These violations included clearly coercive and manipulative tactics. P and S experienced
- the intervention of a priest and anti-abortion activists, unsolicited and unwanted,
- importuning by anti-abortion activists that included confrontations in public,
- national media attention, including a press release issued by a hospital concerning P,
- detention and six hours of questioning by the police,
- apprehension of the girl by state authorities, apparently for the express purpose of preventing the abortion,
- posting on internet by the Catholic News Agency of the girl’s travel to Gdansk for an abortion,
- the filing of criminal charges against the girl for having had unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (i.e., the rape that resulted in pregnancy)
While the court found that objecting physicians had a legal obligation to refer patients for abortion, the source of that legal obligation was Polish law. Article 39 of Poland’s Doctor and Dentist Professions Act imposes a legal obligation of referral. The imposition is objectionable in principle, but the European Court of Human Rights can hardly be criticized for applying Polish law to Polish citizens.