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Poland's Great Leap Backwards

Marta Syrwid travelled to a private clinic in Slovakia for an abortion this January, as thousands of Polishwomen regularly do. Syrwid, 30, a journalist, told her story in Gazeta Wyborcza: ‘2 January. The woman who was supposed to be driving us was still drunk from New Year’s Eve. A man drove us instead and she told him the way. There were three of us in the back, squeezed together in a car that was in a terrible state. It stank of booze and we couldn’t open the windows.’

Abortion was legal and free in Poland from 1956 to 1993 but the country’s current legislation is among the most restrictive in Europe, with only three exemptions from an outright ban — a risk to the mother’s health, a foetal abnormality or illness, or a pregnancy because of rape or incest. And still there are hurdles: ‘Even when a woman is in theory entitled to a free, legal abortion in a public hospital, she often can’t get one,’ says Krystyna Kacpura who runs Federa, the Federation for Women and Family Planning. The majority of doctors invoke the conscience clause or delay until the legal 22-week time limit expires. They request additional examinations and don’t tell patients their rights, despite a legal obligation. ‘And what’s worse,’ says Kacpura, ‘they exert psychological pressure to make them change their minds. They play down the risks of serious health problems in the foetus and say “Of course your child has a brain abnormality but look, he’s moving his legs”.’ Doctors also fear stigma: ‘Some have had their cars vandalised. Online you see “Don’t go to so-and-so. He’s a murderer”. Catholics demonstrate outside hospitals holding graphic images. In some southern cities, there are no longer any hospitals prepared to carry out a termination.’

The official figures show that the number of legal abortions in Poland has dropped from 130,000 a year in the 1980s to under 2,000 for a population of 38.5 million. That is still too many, say activists from the Fundacja PRO — Prawo do Å»ycia (Foundation for the Right to Life), who collected nearly 500,000 signatures in July to submit a draft law to parliament to remove all exemptions except immediate danger to the mother. Doctors would have been required to inform the police about every miscarriage, and women who aborted would have faced five years in prison.

The plan — other than the jail term — was officially backed by Poland’s bishops. The Church put forward Magdalena Korzekwa for interview, who told me that ‘the law should be changed as soon as possible. All unborn children should be protected.’ She maintained that ‘even a child conceived through rape should have the right to life. It’s not his fault if he was conceived in terrible circumstances. He’s a child like any other. His dignity is the same.’ The main grounds for legal abortion in Poland is the risk of disability. ‘That’s a form of eugenics. A choice is being made about who has the right to life.’

The Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has a majority in the Sejm (lower house), approved a draft version of the law on 23 September, but U-turned on 6 October, three days after 100,000 women dressed in black demonstrated in Poland’s major cities. Prime Minister Beata SzydÅ‚o tried to reassure the most reactionary wing of her support base by announcing ‘a huge information campaign to promote the defence of life’ and a support scheme for women who have had a disability diagnosed in their unborn child but not had a termination. The founder of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), Mateusz Kijowski, emphasises that the law ‘originated in civil society: The PiS had said it would put forward its own law to further restrict the right to an abortion, in particular in case of foetal abnormality.’

Parents of a disabled child currently have no entitlement to state aid. Around a million children (14%) in single-parent families receive no support from the father. ‘There is a state food allowance, but the chances of getting the monthly grant of 500 zÅ‚oty [$125] in the event of paternal default are very limited,’ says MaÅ‚gorzata Druciarek, a sociologist at Warsaw’s Gender Equality Observatory. ‘Only 330,000 children receive it. If a woman works and is not assessed as being in extreme poverty, she can’t claim it. Some women do two or three jobs to keep their heads above water.’

Family planning and women’s organisations estimate that 150-200,000 clandestine abortions are carried out in Poland each year. Pro-life campaigners dismiss this as a gross exaggeration. The most clued-up women get reliable information from sites such as Kobiety w Sieci (Women Help Women) or Women on Web, which offer help in finding emergency abortion pills. Some have the financial and material means to go to private clinics in Slovakia, Germany or the Czech Republic.

But what about the less well off and less well informed? ‘Many doctors take advantage of these women in need,’ says Wanda Nowicka, former deputy speaker of the Sejm. ‘The same doctors who say publicly that they won’t carry out abortions put small ads in the papers or online offering “all gynaecological services” or “resumption of your periods”. They sometimes exploit women’s ignorance. Women will go to see a doctor thinking they’re pregnant just because their period is a few days late, and for a hefty fee, these doctors will pretend to carry out a termination but in fact do nothing at all.’

Poland’s black market is thriving. An abortion costs between 3000 and 4000 zÅ‚oty ($750-1,000), a month’s salary (the average monthly income is 4,100 zÅ‚oty). They are sometimes carried out without anaesthetic, and medical aftercare is rare. Marta Syrwid, whose abortion cost $500, says an acquaintance told her about worse journeys than her own. ‘It was like something from a spy film. A minibus took the girls from Kraków to Katowice. In Katowice they had to find the second vehicle by themselves to take them to the doctor’s surgery. They were told to carry a particular newspaper under their arm so the driver would recognise them. A few minutes after the abortion, my friend had to leave the surgery, still under anaesthetic, and walk a kilometre in the snow to the station to catch the train back to Kraków.’ Even if prosecutions are rare in Poland, doctors and others who help a woman risk two years in jail (the projected law would have increased that to five years). Blackmail is common. Other than Syrwid, no woman has told her story publicly, even anonymously — too risky, too painful.

Other women have turned to veterinarians or used heavy doses of arthritis medicine to cause a miscarriage. ‘Most people think it’s an exaggeration to say that women are putting their lives at risk having clandestine abortions, but it’s true,’ says Natalia Skoczylas of Feminoteka, which helps victims of domestic violence. Church spokesperson Magdalena Korzekwa claims ‘these situations don’t exist. They’re an invention of the abortionists.’ Korzekwa went on to say: ‘The greater the protection of life under the law, the fewer the women who will risk their lives by having abortions, including clandestine ones.’

The Federation for Women and Family Planning has recorded cases of women who have had health problems or even died. The most high profile is that of Alicia TysiÄ…c. In March 2007 the European Court of Human Rights found against Poland for its refusal to allow TysiÄ…c, who had three children and suffered from severe myopia, to have a termination that would have saved her sight. In October 2012 the court found Poland to have breached article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to respect for private and family life, in the case of a woman who had been raped when she was 14 and had been refused an abortion by several hospitals, and harassed by anti-abortion groups.

In post-communist Poland, religion is taken seriously. The 1993 compromise on abortion must be seen in the context of the politics of social tension when society was undergoing major change, says sociologist François Bafoil, a Central Europe specialist at CNRS, France’s national centre for scientific research. ‘During the partitions of Poland [in the late 18th century], the Church enabled it to maintain its historical, territorial unity and an idea of nationhood. It played this role again between the wars, and under the Nazis and the communists. It was the foundation of a shared identity. This continued in the 1990s, when the state was overwhelmed by the scale of what it needed to do after independence, and it remains so today.’

So it’s unsurprising that the proposed law contained passages of scripture and quotations from the Polishpope John-Paul II (1978-2005). The number of self-declared Catholics in Poland is still very high. When the regime changed in 1989, the Church ensured that religious education was added to the school curriculum. Sex education, introduced in 1973, was replaced by classes on ‘family life’ taught by priests. ‘They play videos that show the embryo as a child with hands and a head,’ says Natalia Skoczylas, ‘and show how it will be cut up during an abortion.’

Abortion was banned in January 1993. When the left returned to power that September, they passed an amendment adding ‘difficult social circumstances of the mother’ to the permitted exemptions, but this was vetoed by President Lech WaÅ‚Ä™sa and, after his departure in 1995, a new measure introduced by his successor was censured by the constitutional court, which repealed it in 1997.

Today, even the right to contraception cannot be taken for granted. ‘In big cities, it’s easier to get the pill prescribed or to buy contraceptives,’ says Kacpura. ‘You can blend in with the masses. But rural doctors refuse to prescribe it, even for therapeutic purposes.’ Chrystelle F (not her real name), a Frenchwoman married to a Pole who has lived in Warsaw for six years, told me that ‘my pill, Cerazette, is banned by Poland’s Medical Association because they say it carries too high a risk of sterility. My mother posts it to me. Polish friends stock up on it when they go to France or England.’ Chrystelle once tried to get the morning-after pill, available over the counter for under a year: ‘I had to go to nine pharmacies. On one of the city’s best-known streets, Nowowiejska Avenue, one pharmacist told me curtly that I ought to think about what I’m doing. Another told me she couldn’t give it to me because of the problems it might create. I ended up paying €80 [$88] for it, double the normal price.’

‘The current situation for Polish women is the worst in 25 years,’ says Nowicka. Hundreds of thousands of Poles have recently responded to the call from the KOD and demonstrated in Warsaw against PiS decisions in the first public expression of anger since 1989. Social networks rallied 100,000 to a march organised by Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (‘Gals for Gals’) on 18 June, followed by the ‘women on strike’ demonstration on 3 October. ‘These marches in black are a terrifying demonstration of the civilisation of death,’ said the archbishop of Å�ódź. Ewa Burgunska, a film producer, says: ‘The right to medical protection has really pushed us to mobilise. None of the organisers is a feminist or activist, but the proposed law went too far. Our strength is that we know how to talk to women in straightforward terms that reach them all.’ Nowicka believes that ‘part of society has woken up’. Kijowski thinks ‘people realised the effect they could have by taking to the streets. There had never been such demonstrations over abortion before.’ But ‘the current situation is still very serious. Most doctors are restricting access to prenatal examinations.’

Outlawing abortion has had no effect on the birthrate, which has fallen continuously since 1989. At 1.3 births per woman, it is among the lowest in Europe and demographic prospects are grim.

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