The head of a Polish public hospital has been dismissed for refusing on religious grounds to carry out an abortion on a woman whose unborn baby suffered from serious malformations.

The mayor of Warsaw ordered the dismissal of Bogdan Chazan, a city hall spokesman said this morning, after the doctor invoked his Catholic faith to refuse to carry out the procedure.

"A doctor can refuse to carry out an abortion on moral grounds, but a public hospital cannot," said spokesman Bartosz Milczarczyk.

The woman was referred to another public hospital, but by that point she was five days past the legal 24-week abortion limit.

She carried the child to term, giving birth on 30 June only for the baby to die nine days later, yesterday, Polish media reported.

Staunchly-Catholic Poland allows abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape or incest, or 24 weeks in cases of irreversible foetal malformation or a threat to the mother's life.

After that point the procedure can be allowed on a case-by-case basis if the mother's life is at risk.

State prosecutors in the Polish capital have opened an investigation into the woman's case, while her lawyer is seeking damages from the hospital.

The doctor's dismissal has polarised debate between pro- and anti-abortion camps in the overwhelmingly Catholic country whose abortion laws are among the most restrictive in Europe.

"There's no joy among women's rights groups over this decision, which simply upholds the law," Krystyna Kacpura, head of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, said.

"This is a secular state, governed by the rule of law and both sides [in the abortion debate] must obey it," she said.

Official statistics show there are 600 to 700 legal abortions carried out in each year in Poland, a country of 38 million with roughly 10 million women of child-bearing age.

Ms Kacpura estimates there are around 150,000 illegal abortions performed in Poland each year.