Poland: Voluntary Ban On Managing Your Own Body
It is one of the most restrictive states in Europe, apart from Malta, Ireland and Cyprus, in terms of its abortion law. In the face of the massive mobilization of Polish women in October 2016, the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) finally decided to reject a near-total ban on abortion in cases of rape or foetal abnormalities. But under the pressure of Catholic militants and the Catholic Church, access to abortion (the voluntary termination of pregnancy), even in cases allowed by law, remains theoretical.
“It was the 2nd of January. The woman who was supposed to take us there was still drunk after a New Year's Eve party. A man was driving in her place, and she pointed him the way. The three of us were sitting in the back of a shabby car stinking of alcohol, and could not open the windows.” Like thousands of Polish women who have decided to put an end to an unwanted pregnancy, Marta Syrwid made an urgent journey to undergo an illegal abortion in a Slovak private clinic for 2,000 PLN (approximately 460 EUR). This thirty-year-old Polish woman, working as a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza daily, described her painful experience which she underwent in January 2016.1 She is still bewildered today by the words uttered by her then companion when she phoned him on her way home: “When I told him about the conditions of the journey, he said to me: ‘Murderers should be treated like cattle’.”
In John Paul II’s homeland, where the percentage of Catholics is one of the highest in the world, abortion remains a taboo topic. While the voluntary termination of pregnancy (abortion) was permitted and free of charge between 1956 and 1993, Poland now has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. There are only three exceptions in which a woman can have an abortion: when the pregnancy threatens the mother's life or health; in the case of foetal malformations or diseases; and when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. However, even in these three cases, the path to abortion is fraught with obstacles: “When a woman is theoretically entitled to a free and legal abortion in a public hospital, she often does not have access to it for many reasons,” says Krystyna Kacpura, director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa). Most physicians put forward an argument of conscience clause, or prolong the procedure so that the legal time limit (i.e., until the 22nd week of pregnancy) for abortion expires. Doctors require additional medical examinations and do not inform the patients of their rights; and yet it is their responsibility. “What is even worse,” adds Krystyna Kacpura, “is that they exert psychological pressure over them so that they change their minds. They downplay the risk of serious foetal abnormalities when the pregnancy approaches full term by telling them: ‘Sure, your child has a brain malformation, but look, it is moving its legs.’”
“Doctors are afraid that they will be stigmatised and will lose their jobs,” adds Krystyna Kacpura. “Some of them had their car vandalized. And some posted negative comments on the Internet: ‘Do not go to see this doctor, he is a murderer.’ Demonstrations of Catholics shocking people with horrific images are held regularly in front of public hospitals. In some cities of southern Poland, no hospital can offer legal abortion services.”
According to official data, the number of legal abortions carried out in Poland (with a population of over 38.5 million people) fell from over 130,000 in the 1980s to less than 2,000 in recent years. However, it is still too high a number for the activists of the “Fundacja Pro – prawo do życia” Foundation which gathered nearly 500,000 signatures at the beginning of July 2016 in order to submit a bill to the Polish Parliament that would ban abortion completely and abolish the possibility of abortion permitted so far in three exceptional circumstances. Only a direct threat to the mother's life will make it possible for a woman to have a legal abortion. The doctor, according to the proposed bill, would be obliged to report miscarriages to the police, and women who have had an abortion would be punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The Episcopate officially endorsed the draft bill – aside from one clause: it opposed the punishment of women who had aborted. Magdalena Korzekwa, appointed by the Episcopate’s spokesman to answer our questions, assures that “the current bill needs to be amended as soon as possible. All unborn children should be protected because currently they are being discriminated against.” A divine baby delivered at any price. “Even children born of rape should have the right to life,” says Korzekwa. “Even though such a child was conceived in dramatic circumstances, it is not responsible for it; its dignity is the same as of any other child. The most common reason for having an abortion in Poland is the presupposed risk of having a child with a disability. Yet, this is the manifestation of eugenics: we choose children who have the right to live and we reject those to whom we deny this right.”
“It would be a double or even triple punishment for women who cannot abort,” comments Małgorzata Druciarek, a sociologist from Warsaw’s Gender Equality Observatory. There is currently no allowance for parents who have disabled children in Poland. The proposed bill provides for material assistance but does not specify in what form. In single-parent families, about one million children do not receive any child maintenance support. “There is a statutory maintenance service, but the possibility of obtaining a benefit of PLN 500 per month (i.e., EUR 114) if the child’s father does not pay any maintenance support is very limited,” says Małgorzata Druciarek. “If a woman works and is not considered extremely poor, she is not eligible for such benefits. In order to make ends meet, some mothers work two or three jobs.”
The Law and Justice Party (PiS) which has a large majority in the Polish Parliament, did a complete about-turn after the “Black Protest” of 6 October, after passing the first version of the bill on 23 September 2016. The big Black Protest gathered hundreds of thousands of women on the 3rd of October who – dressed in black – boycotted work and took to the streets throughout Poland. But Prime Minister Beata Szydło quickly reassured the most conservative fringe of her electorate by announcing “a broad-based information campaign for the protection of life” and a program to support women who decided not to terminate pregnancy in spite of the diagnosed defects of their unborn child. The Polish Parliament passed a law last November granting PLN 4,000 (i.e., EUR 926) to a mother agreeing to give birth to her severely handicapped child or having no chance of survival.
The ideologues of the “pro-life” movement do not care about the number of illegal abortions which they claim are significantly inflated. However, feminist organizations and associations for family planning estimate the number of abortions in Poland at 150,000–200,000. The best-informed women may obtain reliable information via websites such as “Women on Web” or “I need an abortion pills”2 which help them get abortifacients. Some women have sufficient financial resources to go to a private clinic in Slovakia, Germany or the Czech Republic. This opportunity appeared after Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004 which led, according to Krystyna Kapcura, “to the development of abortion tourism in Europe.” But what about poorer or less educated women?
“Many doctors take advantage of these young girls in need,” says Wanda Nowicka, former vice-president of the Polish Parliament. “The very same people who publicly refuse to perform an abortion, then post their ads in newspapers or online, as offering ‘all gynaecological services’ or ‘inducing periods,’ offering illegal abortion. Some people take advantage of these girls’ ignorance,” writes Nowicka, an ardent defender of women's rights and advocate for women’s reproductive rights. “Women go to see a doctor, thinking they are pregnant, but in fact their period is a few days late. In exchange for a considerable sum of money, doctors say they have performed an abortion, but in fact nothing of the kind has been done.”
In Poland, the black market is flourishing. An abortion costs on average between 3,000 PLN and 4,000 PLN (approximately between 690 EUR and 915 EUR), the equivalent of one month’s salary, as the average income amounts to approximately 4,100 PLN (i.e., roughly EUR 1,000).3 The surgery is carried out sometimes without anaesthesia, often with no medical follow-up. In France, where abortion has been legal since 1975, all the costs associated with it are covered in 100% by health insurance for both adults and underage women. The State guarantees access to abortion without the parents’ consent. “An acquaintance of mine told me in what conditions she had an abortion in Poland,” explains Marta Syrwid. “Everything was like in a spy film: a minibus transported girls from Krakow to Katowice. Then, in Katowice, they had to find a second car which would take them to the doctor's surgery. In order for the driver to recognize them, they had to have a rolled-up newspaper under their arm. A few minutes after the abortion, when the girl was still under the influence of the anaesthetic, she had to leave the doctor's surgery and march for 1 km in the snow to get to the station and get on a train to Cracow.” Anyone who performs an illegal abortion in Poland faces a penalty of two years’ imprisonment. According to the newly proposed bill, they would face up to five years in prison. There are numerous cases of blackmailing women. But apart from Marta, no woman has ageed to testify, even anonymously. It was far too risky, too painful, and too shameful.
Desperate women go to see a vet or buy medications used for osteoarthritis which in high doses cause miscarriage. “Most people say we exaggerate saying that women risk their lives because of an illegal abortion, but actually that is true,” says Natalia Skoczylas from Feminoteka association which helps women who are victims of domestic violence. “Such situations do not happen, it is the manipulation of the abortionists,” claims Magdalena Korzekwa, appointed by the spokesman of the Episcopate to answer our questions. And then she adds: “The more the law protects human life, the less women are inclined to risk their lives by undergoing an abortion, including an illegal abortion.”
The Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) estimates that several dozen women have lost their lives or health so far due to illegal abortions. The most emblematic case is that of Alicja Tysiąc. On the 20th of March 2007, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned Poland for denying Alicja Tysiąc, the mother of three children, her right to a therapeutic abortion which would have prevented her from losing her sight and becoming disabled. On 30 October 2012, the same European Court of Human Rights again condemned Poland for violating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights referring to the right to respect for private and family life. The case concerned a teenage girl from Lublin who had been raped at the age of 14. She was denied her right to abortion by several hospitals in addition to being harassed by anti-abortion movements.
In post-Communist Poland, no one dares to dally with religion. “The so-called abortion compromise of 1993 was part of the policy of social conflict, at the time when Polish society was undergoing massive changes,” says François Bafoil, sociologist and research director at CNRS, expert on Central Europe.4 “During the Partitions of Poland, the Church ensured Poland’s historical, territorial, and national unity. The same happened in the interwar period, under the Nazi occupation and then under Communism. The Church was the pillar of Polish identity. This continued until the 1990s, when the Polish state was overwhelmed by the many challenges it faced after gaining independence. The situation continues to this day.”
It therefore comes as no surprise that in the proposed abortion law, there are references to the Gospel, as well as quotes from Pope St. John Paul II speeches. After the change of regime in 1989, the Church was given the task of teaching religion at school. As for sexual education, originally introduced in 1973, it was removed from schools and replaced by “family life education,” taught by priests. “The priests show during the lessons films about abortion where the foetus is presented as a baby with hands and a head,” adds Natalia Skoczylas, “and then it is dismembered during an abortion.” Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as “Ponton,” were established in order to fill this information gap and counter this lack of knowledge. Each school has the right to benefit from training courses run by such organizations. However, the current Minister of Education, Anna Zalewska, expressed the desire to remove such organizations from schools. In her view, these training courses sexualize children.
With the return of the left to power in 1993, a bill extending the right of abortion to a “difficult social situation of a future mother” was passed. But this law was vetoed by the then president, Lech Wałęsa, and after the end of his term in office in 1995, it was abrogated by the Constitutional Tribunal in 1997. Today, even contraception is not obvious.
“In big cities, it is easier to ask your doctor for a birth control prescription or to buy contraceptives at a pharmacy,” says Krystyna Kacpura. “People are anonymous. But doctors in rural areas refuse to prescribe contraceptives even for therapeutic purposes.” Chrystelle F.,5 a French woman who has been living in Warsaw for 6 years, has to resort to exceptional measures: “My contraceptive pill, Cerazette, has been banned in Poland by the Chamber of Physicians, because according to them it carries a high risk of infertility. My mother sends it to me by post. My Polish friends buy these pills while traveling to France or England.” As for the morning-after pill, theoretically dispensed as an OTC medicine for just over a year – even though the Law & Justice Party wants it to be a prescription drug – it has left Christelle with a bitter taste: “I was in 9 pharmacies. On Nowowiejska Street, in one of Warsaw’s most frequented pharmacies, the pharmacist informed me that it was not in stock and instructed me that I should think about what I am doing. Another pharmacist told me she was not able to get me this pill because she would have problems because of it. I finally had to pay EUR 80, which is double of its normal price!” In France, the average cost of emergency contraception amounts to EUR 8 and it is an OTC drug available in all pharmacies. Every woman, both adult and underage, can buy it anonymously. Underage women and students can get it for free from a school nurse or provided as part of the academic preventive health services.
“This is the worst time in the history of women’s rights in Poland over the past 25 years,” says Wanda Nowicka. In recent months, hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets of Warsaw to protest against the decisions of the Law & Justice government. It was the first demonstration on such a scale since 1989. Social media brought together 100,000 people around the “Dziewuchy dziewuchom” [Wenches to wenches] Association which organized the protest on 18 June 2016 against the proposed law on abortion. “The right to medical protection has motivated us to get involved,” says Ewa Burgunska, 51, film producer. “None of the organizers is a feminist or activist, but this bill simply surpasses all limits. The ability to talk to women using simple words which stir up emotions is our strength.” “Some part of the society has been awakened,” says Wanda Nowicka. Mateusz Kijowski, founder of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), stresses: “People realized how much strength they have when they took to the streets. There have never been such protests related to the question of abortion so far.” “But the current situation has become very serious. – adds Kijowski. Most doctors go as far as limiting access to prenatal exams.”
Though the demographic prospects for Poland are bleak, the ban on abortion has had no impact on the birth rate. On the contrary, the fertility rate in Poland has been declining steadily since 1989. With less than 1.3 children per woman, Poland has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe and the second lowest in the European Union.
Audrey Lebel is an independent journalist. She collaborates amongst others with Causette, Le Monde Diplomatique and Alternatives économiques. She focuses on issues of women's rights, gender stereotypes and social justice.
*Cover photo: Marta Frej. Courtesy of the artist.
 Marta Syrwid, “Polki jadą po aborcję na Słowację” [Polish women travel to Slovakia to have an abortion], Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw, 28 January 2016, https://wyborcza.pl/duzyformat/1,127290,19540669,polki-jada-po-aborcje-na-slowacje.html.
 An international platform created in 2006 in the Netherlands by Rebecca Gomperts to help women in countries where abortion is illegal, www.womenonweb.org.
 According to a specialist portal: http://wynagrodzenia.pl/gus.
 Author of the book entitled La Pologne [Poland], ed. Fayard-Ceri, Lille, 2007.
 The name has been changed.