Poland Is Trying to Make Abortion Dangerous, Illegal, and Impossible
Ireland voted to liberalize abortion laws. The far-right government in Warsaw is moving in the opposite direction.
Everyone knows someone who has had an abortion in Poland. But most of it happens underground.
Under Poland’s draconian abortion law—one of the strictest in the European Union—terminations are permitted only if there is a threat to the mother’s life, if there is a fetal abnormality, or when pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest. Even when it is permitted, few doctors are willing to perform the procedure, forcing women to seek abortion on the black market, where they risk their health and sometimes their lives.
In Europe, only Northern Ireland and Malta have stricter laws, where abortion is banned in most circumstances. Until recently, the Republic of Ireland was part of this group. However, in a momentous referendum last May, the republic voted to lift the ban, joining the list of more than 30 countries that have liberalized abortion laws since 1994. Poland seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
The trend is extremely disturbing given the crucial role that access to abortion plays in protecting women’s lives and health. More than 30,000 women still die from botched abortions each year worldwide. And restrictions on abortion only increase the number of women who seek illegal and unsafe methods. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, abortion rates in countries where it is broadly legal and where it is highly restrictive are similar—34 abortions take place for every 1,000 women in countries where it is not restricted, and 37 per 1,000 where it is illegal.
Officially, just 1,055 women obtained a legal abortion in Poland in 2016, while illegal abortions numbered up to 150,000, according to Krystyna Kacpura, the executive director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning (FEDERA). It’s not known how many women are injured or die as a result of unsafe, illegal abortions. In Ireland, just 25 legal abortions were carried out in 2016, while 3,265 women traveled from Ireland to the U.K. for a termination that year. And in March 2018, the Guttmacher Institute found that countries in Latin America and the Caribbean—where there is a total ban or severe restrictions on abortion—have the highest annual rate of abortion in the world: for every 1,000 women in the region of reproductive age, 44 have had abortions.
In 1989, after the collapse of communism, the new government sought to impose an outright ban on abortion, which had been legal in Poland since 1956—a move widely seen as a payoff to the Roman Catholic Church for its integral role in nurturing the rise of the opposition. Widespread protests against the ban led to the creation of the restrictive 1993 “compromise bill” that is in place today. However, surveys showed about 60 percent of Poles opposed the bill. “Women had no say in the decision. The church and politicians decided for us, and they are still deciding for us today,” said Kacpura.
The church has long held enormous influence in Poland, where about 86 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. Once repressed under the old regime, the church was by its very existence a constant, powerful rebel against communism as bishops regularly criticized government policies. By the late 1980s, it was considered the primary vehicle for anti-communist activism under the Solidarity movement—the hugely popular trade union movement that succeeded in overthrowing the communist leadership in 1989.
Since the end of communism, the church and government have been inseparable. “Politicians know that to be successful they need the support of the church,” Kacpura said. In 2015, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, strongly aligned with the church, won an outright majority in Parliament, giving rise to an increasingly nationalistic atmosphere that embraced anti-abortion rhetoric. In March 2016, lawmakers tried to impose a full ban on abortion, which threatened to imprison women seeking abortions and doctors who performed the procedure for up to five years. Even “suspicious” miscarriages could be investigated.
People were furious. Thousands of men and women took to the streets across Poland in the “Black Protests”—one of the largest demonstrations in the history of the country—forcing the government to abandon its plans. Now, it is trying again. The current Polish Parliament is working on the “stop abortion” bill, authored by staunch conservative groups, that would outlaw abortion for the most common reason: fetal malformation. Yet, as many 75 percent of Poles oppose further restrictions on the existing law, according to a March 2018 survey by Kantar Millward Brown. Another survey found that 69 percent of Poles support the right to terminate a pregnancy before 12 weeks.
Although protests halted the legislative process last spring, Marta Kotwas, a Polish doctoral researcher at University College London and a women’s rights activist, argues that with a PiS victory in this year’s parliamentary elections, it’s likely this law will be passed.
What’s more, under the PiS-led government, access to the morning-after pill—or as it has been rebranded, “the early abortion pill”—has also been restricted with the introduction in July 2017 requirement for a prescription for emergency contraception. A great concern among women’s rights activists is that the strong anti-abortion propaganda and the fact that women have now grown up without access to abortion are conditioning the younger generation not to talk.
“When I’m out on the street collecting signatures for liberalized abortion laws, I get more support from women in their 50s who remember when they had this right. But women in their 20s and 30s say nothing,” said Iza Desperak, a sociology teacher at the University of Lodz.
The church, anti-abortion groups, and government have transformed abortion into a deeply moral issue that has polarized the population. In the western city of Poznan, for example, anti-abortion campaigners have displayed graphic posters of fetuses alongside images of Adolf Hitler, with text comparing abortion to genocide.
Anti-abortion ideas are amplified by PiS Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has called the latest abortion bill the new “pro-life law” that will stop abortions of those with Down syndrome, which, he claims, are the majority of abortion cases. Academics and rights activists say there is no evidence to support this.
These messages are shocking for women who grew up under communism. Kacpura remembers when abortion was just a procedure and noncontroversial. “You could have it done on a Friday and be back in church on a Sunday,” she said. Stigmatization of abortion and sex has been compounded by the church’s hijacking of sex education, reinforced by PiS politicians who claim it would lead to “unnecessary sex promotion” and “sexual degeneration.” Instead, children are given “Preparation for Family Life” classes, delivered by the school’s religious teacher, who is approved by the local church.
Growing up in 1990s Lodz, one women’s rights activist said, “The general message was the family is of supreme value. There was no talk about the permissibility of abortion, contraceptives, and consent. The point was to make girls believe that sex can only happen only within a Catholic marriage.”
Under PiS the message has only intensified. Last year new textbooks were introduced that present embryos as “unborn children” and contraception as “dangerous” for a person’s health. Teachers have complained to the government about the lack of practical information on access to contraception and abortion. “It’s not an education, it’s misinformation,” Desperak said.
Abortion is already banned in some regions thanks to the “clause of conscience,” which gives doctors the right to refuse an abortion on faith grounds. Although they are obligated to refer a woman to another doctor, it rarely happens, according to Kacpura.
In the eastern region of Podkarpackie, more than 3,000 doctors signed the clause in a PiS-led initiative to make the area anti-abortion, inspired by the Italian region of Verona. A local PiS politician, Jacek Kotula, said the party aimed to send a signal that “homosexuality, gender ideology, abortion, and in vitro fertilization are all unwelcome here.” The same policy “exists unofficially in most Polish hospitals,” Kotwas said. Only 10 percent of hospitals agree to carry out abortions, according to FEDERA.
A Warsaw doctor, Bogdan Chazan, caused an uproar in June 2014 after he refused to perform an abortion of a severely deformed fetus on faith grounds. He failed to tell the mother the abortion would be illegal after 12 weeks, nor where else she could get the procedure. The baby, carried to term, was born with no skull and died nine days later.
Kacpura said there are many such stories, but these seldom reach the media, as women are often too traumatized to speak out. Patricia Mitro, a Polish lawyer specializing in family affairs, told the Dzien Dobry TVN program she has seen a huge increase in the number of women in Podkarpackie reporting that doctors failed to tell them their baby would be deformed.
The situation is just what the PiS chairman, Kaczynski, could have hoped for when, in October 2016, he said: “We will strive to ensure that even pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die, is severely deformed, end with the mother giving birth so the child can be baptized, buried, and have a name.”
No one in government has discussed severe conditions where the maximum survival time is a few days or weeks at a cost of enormous suffering to the child and the mother. It’s no wonder that women—particularly those from smaller villages—travel to different regions to see a gynecologist, afraid local doctors will conceal information.
Many women have found a way to safely abort at home, such as Mary from Gdansk, now 28, who ordered pills online using the website of Women on Waves—a Dutch nongovernmental organization that gives advice on accessing abortion in countries where it is forbidden.
Mary was 19 and about to start university when she found out she was pregnant. “I knew immediately I didn’t want a baby. It wasn’t the right time.” The site explains how to get hold of medicines like Arthrotec from pharmacies without needing a doctor’s prescription. Arthrotec, prescribed to reduce arthritic pain, can be used to induce an abortion safely up to nine weeks of pregnancy. “Say it’s for your grandmother’s arthritis,” the site writes. That’s exactly what she did.
Mary took the pills in a relative’s empty house with her boyfriend. Feeling more pain than expected, she called a Women on Waves representative. “I remember being relieved when I heard she had kids around her. It made me realize I wasn’t a monster who hated children,” said Mary, now the mother of two children.
Women who have passed the cutoff for taking the pill can turn to a Polish doctor willing to carry out the abortion illegally, typically paying around 4,000 zloty, or just over $1,000, but it can be as much a 9,000 zloty (about $2,400). The cost is steep considering Poland’s average monthly wage is about $1,250. The University of Warsaw researcher Agata Chelstowska estimated in 2011 that the illegal abortion industry generates $95 million a year.
More and more women are choosing to go to clinics abroad in Slovakia or Germany. This way, women can also spare themselves the shame they are likely to face in a Polish hospital. “You cannot imagine the humiliation,” Desperak said. One such foreign organization is Ciocia Basia, a Berlin-based Polish-speaking volunteer group created four years ago in response to the growing numbers of women traveling to Germany for safe abortions. The group translates documents, organizes travel and accommodation, and subsidizes costs if women cannot afford the procedure, which costs approximately 400 euros (about $450) in Berlin. “We never turn people down for lack of money. We let them stay on our couches for free,” a group member said.
Mary has never told her friends and family about her abortion. “I’m scared of the discussion. If you have an abortion, you’re a bad person. Everyone has an opinion on it. It’s really black and white.” The scale of the Black Protests signified a turning point in uniting women on the issue, and there’s no doubt that opposition to further restricting abortion is strong. So far, protesters have managed to stop a bad situation from getting worse. But much greater work is needed to challenge the abortion laws that were never democratically implemented and to counter the government’s latest efforts.
The United Nations and the Council of Europe have denounced Poland’s “retrogressive” restrictions on reproductive rights. But without consensus among their member states, these bodies have no enforcement powers. In reality, the Polish government has the ability to roll back women’s rights, and it’s down to civil society to push back. That will require more women demanding the same rights that Irish women and their European counterparts have claimed.