I was 12 years old when the abortion law in Poland was severely restricted. At that time I was not aware that the politicians were deciding about the lives of thousands of women, including mine. Later I read that thousands of people protested in the streets of Warszawa and millions signed a petition supporting a referendum. In the pre-internet society, this was a great achievement and proof that Polish society was against those changes. Unfortunately, the first Polish democratic government ignored women’s voices, showing the deepest disregard for democratic processes. Since then, political elites have time and time again proved they are more concerned about keeping the Catholic church on their side than they are about the welfare and safety of women.
In 1990 there were 60,000 legal abortions, 4 years later over 1000, and in 2005, only 138. Obviously, women did not suddenly stop undergoing pregnancy termination after 1993. Women’s organisations estimate that the number of abortions stayed on a similar level – 60,000-100,000 a year. Most of the procedures are now performed in the thriving abortion underground often by the same doctor that did it legally in the 80s but now with a high fee.
Women living in small towns and those with limited financial resources have especially been penalised by the restrictive abortion law. The ones that are well off can afford to pay for a back-street abortion or go abroad to the Czech Republic or the increasingly popular UK. For some, the only thing that changed when they want to access abortion is having to pay for it – sometimes as much as an average monthly salary.
Women take desperate actions when faced with unwanted pregnancy. Many order the “abortion pills” online and take it with no supervision or access to medical professionals, often in secret from friends and family.
Reports on Polish women in the UK seeking illegal abortion are widespread. They are often not aware that abortion is legal in the UK, have little knowledge how the NHS operates or poor language skills. I also think that due to years of living in the country where women who undergo abortion are stigmatised and called murderers, it might be difficult to imagine going to your local GP and saying out in the open that you do not want to continue the pregnancy.
On the 21st of March, children in Poland celebrate the coming of spring by burning or drowning an effigy of the winter. This year a right wing youth organisation prepared a dummy of Alicja Tysiąc. Although pregnancy termination is admissible when there is a danger to woman’s health under the current legislation, Tysiąc, who had been told that continuing the pregnancy would result in her going blind, could not find a hospital that would carry out the procedure and was forced to continue with her pregnancy. Tysiąc, (who is now unable to work because of her disability) won a case against the Polish government at the European Court of Human Rights. The defeat did not result in a serious political debate or revisiting of the legislation. What happened instead was a torrent of abuse towards Tysiąc and pro-choice feminists.
Currently, with the right-wing government in majority there is a very little chance the law will be changed in the foreseeable future. The abortion law itself is referred to by the politicians as “a compromise”. This refers to the deal struck between the church and the government when attempts to liberalise the law by the left wing government were halted in exchange for church officials support for the EU accession referendum.
Each year the polls show that public support for liberalising the law is diminishing. With the public discourse dominated by the anti-abortion right wing, it is not surprising. For many years I witnessed how the debate on abortion in Poland has shifted and how important it is to work with young people whose opinions are easily influenced by authority figures. Since I started working at EFC, I often wonder if it would ever be possible to implement parts of our Talk About Choice education programme in the Polish school context. I certainly regret that young people there cannot participate in sex education classes where abortion is discussed in terms of rights not as it happens now during religion classes led by a priest and preceded by the screening of Silent Scream.
Barbara is administrator at Education For Choice.