Is This The Toughest Place In Europe To Be A Woman?

The European country where abortion is illegal (except in extreme medical circmtsrances) and a far right-political party has risen to the top

Is This The Worst Place In Europe To Be A Woman?

by Mari Shibata |
Published on

'Keep your hands off the uterus', 'my body, my business' protestors chanted on the streets of Warsaw in Poland. They waived coat hangers above their heads, a symbol of the grim, draconian, unsafe and archiac nature of underground abortions. Women's rights activists in Poland are taking to the streets to protest the tightening of abortion regulations in the country, intended to bring the law in line with teachings of the Catholic church. Poland already has some of the toughest legislation in Europe when it comes to women's reproductive rights but the most recent protests have been sparked because the leader of the country's ruling party, the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) , want to tighten abortion law even further. They have backed calls from Catholic bishops for an all out ban on abortion. The country's Prime Minister, Beata Szydlo, has also expressed her support for a ban. Women were seen walking out of a church as a letter was read out in support of the proposed changes by a priest.

Only Ireland and Malta have more restrictive abortion laws than Poland. It is a crime to terminate a pregnancy except in three circumstances; when the mother's health is in jeopardy, in cases of rape or incest and when there is a detectable problem with the unborn child.

Monika is a 27-year-old Polish marketing professional working in the north-western town of Koszalin. At the moment she is not pregnant, but she is concerned that changing laws in the Eastern European country are going to affect her at some stage in her life. ‘I don’t want children in the future, so the thought that I might have to break the law to access family planning in my country is not ideal,’ she tells The Debrief. ‘It would be a huge stress; I believe having an abortion would be stressful in general, but you also have to worry about how you can get away with breaking the law as well.’ Regardless of whether abortion is illegal or not, having an abortion can be a tough process, the worry about getting away with it because it’s also illegal is an added layer of stress at a potentially distressing time.


Yet despite these exceptions, access to safe abortion remains extremely limited and expensive. In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights slammed Poland's flawed abortion laws and called for urgent reform to the country's restrictive conditions for obtaining a safe and legal abortion. Poland is a country with 38 million inhabitants and yet the official number of abortions recorded is only 744, to put this in perspective, neighbouring Germany has a population of 80 million and their National Statistics Bureau recorded around 99700 abortions in 2014.

Religion has a part to play. As Human Rights Watch reports, as things stand, many medical professionals in the Roman Catholic country still invoke what's called ‘conscience clause’ under Poland's Doctor and Dentist Professions Ac. This means that they can refuse to perform abortions, in urgent situations where they are legal, because they feel it goes against their personal values and believes. While this law requires doctors to refer the women who come to them with medical grounds for a legal abortion, local rights groups report that this rarely takes place in practice. The Federation for Women and Family Planning conducted a report for the UN Human Rights Councilwhich found that women seeking abortion face stigma, intimidation and misinformation from healthcare providers and clergy.

In April 2014, a pregnant woman asked Professor Bogdan Chazan, director of Warsaw’s Holy Family Hospital, for an abortion because her own physician had diagnosed her unborn child with grave health problems. Chazan sent the woman a letter saying he could not agree to an abortion in his hospital because of a 'conflict of conscience', and instead gave the women the address of a hospice where, he said, the child could get palliative care once born. And so, her baby was born with severe head and facial deformities and a brain that was not viable, conditions which the doctor said would result in the child’s death within a month or two.

Chazan was one of 3,000 people - mainly medical professionals - who had signed a ‘Declaration of Faith’the following month, which upholds religious ideology over state law and declares that all those who signed it consider abortion and other reproductive services (like providing contraception or the morning after pill) to go against their faith. Donald Tusk, then-prime minister, did remind Polish medical professionals that the obligation to provide comprehensive health care should come before the beliefs of an individual. However, three female journalists from Polska Newsweek who tested the attitudes of several signatories by making three requests - one for a prescription for a morning-after pill, another for an abortion after rape, and a third for a prenatal test to detect any possible malformation - were turned down by every signatory doctor they approached.

Monika’s concerns stem from such cases like these where an abortion fails because they were not safely monitored. ‘As a young woman, if I hypothetically wanted to have an abortion now I would have resort to having one by an underground doctor, who could seriously hurt you because they aren’t being regulated like normal doctors,’ she says. ‘I earn 25% more than my friends but even then it would cost equivalent to two months of my salary. Those people are focusing on making money, not helping women. It’s not safe, it just doesn’t work.’

To raise awareness of these draconian abortion laws, Dutch activist group Women on Waves delivered World Health Organisation-approved abortion pills to women in Poland using a small drone which weighed less than 5kg last summer. They launched the drone from the German city of Frankfurt an der Oder and it landed in the Polish town of Slubice, in an attempt to help women in the country terminate their pregnancies safely. ‘At the moment we are planning to do a similar campaign this year,’ founder Rebecca Gomperts tells The Debrief. ‘But the political situation in Poland has changed a lot since especially with the recent elections. We are watching the developments closely and will work together with local organisations in any new actions.’

Gomperts was referring to the fact that the far-right Law & Justice party triumphed in national elections at the end of last year, running on a raft of nationalistic promises: including hostility to migrants and withdrawing from the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul convention. To put this in perspective, this is the first time a political party has been in power with a majority since Poland became a democratic country in 1989 after being annexed as a satellite state by the Soviet Union. In a poll conducted by IPSOS in December for Polish public broadcaster TVP, 56% said they feel that democracy was under threat in their country; only 37% said they had no such concerns.

Magda, a 26 year-old working as a PR in Tourism, says that she’s been more active about going out in the streets to protest because more and more people are expressing frustration against the new government’s restrictive policies. ‘The politics in Poland is getting so much worse than before. Abortion is just one of many things,’ she says. ‘Although the abortion laws don’t affect me personally for now, I am nonetheless concerned that the government is creating laws that don’t protect my rights to decide what I want to do with my own body. And because of this increased control and frustration, I am becoming more confident in my views - a few years ago I didn’t care so much about politics, but now what the government is doing is really going to have a huge affect on me. The protests I go to are therefore ones rallying against the government in general, rather than those specific to reproductive rights.’

Magdalena*, a secondary school teacher says that regardless of who is in power, better laws are needed when it comes to abortion because there is a lack of education on sexual health. ‘I don’t put my hope in politics - it doesn’t matter who is in government, there will always be someone who will complain. The topic of sex in Poland is still a taboo. Nobody is talking about this, even at schools and consequently young people are not educated,’ she explains. ‘How do they know how to protect themselves? It's not just unwanted pregnancies but also of many dangerous diseases. In such a situation where lots of people still think it is better to drink cup of tea instead of having sex, I believe that every woman should have the right to choose whether to have an abortion.’

Regional and international bodies, including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, have consistently condemned the Polish government for failing to ensure that women can undertake abortions in accordance with the law. A report from the Lancet, a medical journal, shows that abortion rate in countries that have banned the practice is higher than in countries where women have access to abortion, put simply: banning abortion doesn’t make it happen less, it just makes it less safe. The most recent figures on this, published in 2012, show that despite a declining overall abortion rate, the proportion of unsafe abortions taking place around the world is increasing.

The lack of safe abortions in Poland means that most women in need consider going abroad to have them. ‘We resort to making jokes about getting abortions abroad because it’s cheaper,’ Monika says. ‘Every time I think I may be pregnant, I think that I'll just go to England because I used to live there. But I know the closest place for it is the Czech Republic, as a friend talked about it in the pub last weekend.’

Pro-choice campaigners estimatethat up to 150,000 women terminate their pregnancies outside Poland’s public hospitals. Doctors told Reuters in 2010 that an illegal abortion in Poland costs 2,000-4,000 zlotys ($640-$1,270), compared to 400-600 euros ($510-$760) in Germany, 280 euros in the Netherlands and 450-2,000 pounds ($700-$3,120) in Britain.

22-year-old gym instructor Aleksandra empathises with those who have to face the law. ‘I'm happy that I don't need an abortion and I'm not afraid of being pregnant cause I've got a responsible boyfriend, but I feel sorry for every girl who has to deal with this problem,’ she says. ‘I'm sure that many of irresponsible teenagers would use the abortion more than once without seeing dangerous consequences for their health.’

She added, ‘maybe if the abortion was legal in my country there would be no abandoned and unhappy children. I think it should be made legal in Poland; every case should be considered individually....’

*Names have been changed

This article was updated on 05.04.16 to reflect developments in the situation in Poland

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Follow Mari on Twitter @mshibata_

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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