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2nd Mar 2024

Poland's culture of fear after three years of abortion 'ban'

  • Pro-choice demonstrators in Brussels on International Ssafe Abortion Day, to show solidarity with Polish women (Photo: Unsplash)
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Earlier this year, a Polish woman called Joanna ordered abortion pills online to terminate her pregnancy.

She took the pills but was not feeling good afterwards, so she decided to check with a doctor.

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  • One placard read: 'The Right Of The Child To Be Wanted Without Impositions' (Photo: Paula Soler)

In the hospital, instead of an examination, she faced an interrogation from the police. She was asked to undress, do squats and cough, she told Polish media Fakty TVN.

Police seized her phone and her computer to determine whether her pregnancy termination had been assisted by anybody else — a crime under the Polish criminal court punishable by up to three years in prison.

Joanna's case sparked protests on 25 July in front of police stations in Cracow, Warsaw and other cities — recalling the mass rallies across the country in 2020, when Poland imposed its near-total ban on abortion.

As cases of women dying due to pregnancy complications have come to light, Polish women are today still demanding access to safe abortion — with fear and anger ever present.

According to media reports, at least seven women in Poland have died since 2020 due to lack of access to a safe and legal abortion.

Those protests have also been echoed in the EU capital, Brussels.

On International Safe Abortion Day (Thursday, 28 September), dozens of people gathered in front of the European Parliament calling for solidarity among member states to send a message that restricting access to abortion is neither democratic nor in accordance with the rule of law.

Placards with messages such as "My Body, My Choice", "Abortion Rights Are Human Rights" or "The Right Of The Child To Be Wanted Without Impositions" were raised high in Place du Luxembourg.

Backlash against women's rights

"The picture is clear," Polish MEP Robert Biedrón (S&D) told EUobserver. "We are facing a strong backlash [against] women's rights with a very strong anti-gender movement".

"Women [in Poland] have fewer rights than in 2004 when we entered the EU," Biedrón continued. "It's a very disappointing situation for millions of women and men who were hoping that while joining the EU, the EU would broaden the human rights perspective".

Moreover, the vast majority of Poles (88 percent) do not agree with the decision by Poland's Constitutional Court restricting women's rights to abortion, according to an opinion poll published by Federa on World Safe Abortion Day and ahead of the country's crunch election on 15 October.

Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska) and the Left (Lewica) are the only parties which have promised to introduce the option to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester, if they win next month's election.

However, the rightwing Catholic ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is expected to be victorious again, as polls indicate they are currently on about 38 percent.

Mass protests in Poland in 2020 (Photo: Spacerowiczka)

Prosecution

Today, a woman in Poland has just 12 weeks to terminate a pregnancy and can only do so in two cases: if she's raped or if her life is endangered.

In addition, there are pregnancy registries, where the government and prosecutors can see all pregnancies through to completion.

"In practice, doctors, not wanting to expose themselves to criminal liability for terminating a pregnancy outside of situations under the law, are afraid to take action and, for example, wait for the foetus to die in order to terminate it, even though this puts the women's life at risk," Federa told EUobserver.

"A certain culture of fear has been created in the country, firstly preventing women from accessing legal and safe abortion, and secondly criminalising the services of abortion providers," Amnesty International campaigner Lana van Langendonck said.

Human rights defenders themselves are also targeted in Poland. "Our sex educators have been vilified in the past and our activists have received threats, including death threats," Federa said.

'Second class citizens'

The EU does not have a say over sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion, since health policies are the competence of member states.

However, granting access to abortion across the EU has been a subject of ongoing debate and discussion for years.

Last year, the parliament approved a resolution calling on EU countries to include the right to legal and safe abortion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights — following French president Emmanuel Macron's pledges to open such a debate in the EU Council.

Nevertheless, it is widely expected that any such proposal is not going to materialise any time soon.

"We have a standard for the quality of water, roaming, and charger, but in 2023, we don't have a standard for women's rights, come on!," Biedrón lamented. "Women should not be treated as second-class citizens".

Malta is the sole member state in the EU where abortion is completely prohibited. However, research has shows that many women travel to seek abortion care in another country. Data collected in the Netherlands shows that almost 3,000 women travelled there in 2014 to get an abortion, mainly from France, Germany and Belgium.

"This is very restrictive in terms of who can afford to travel in order to get an abortion," Stephanie Rary, member of the women's rights section of the Belgian trade union FGTB, told EUobserver.

But many EU states have other legal barriers to abortion, such as mandatory counselling or waiting periods.

Mandatory counselling has been an issue in countries like Germany since it postpones a process which is linked to the gestational age limit, obliging women to find counsellors and make appointments.

In addition, women across the EU also face financial barriers and problems in accessing information in many countries where abortion is actually legal.

Solidarity

Simultaneously, Hungary and Poland are the only countries in the EU where the morning-after pill is only available under medical prescription.

But what else can the EU do to improve the situation?

Biedrón lists three key points: including reproductive and sexual rights in the EU's health strategy, strengthening transnational solidarity and standardising women's rights.

Federa adds that they also have "high hopes" for the development of telemedicine in the EU, which could give Polish women access to the pill.

Including these rights in the European strategy would be seen as a signal to the member states, which have competence in this area, that these rights (including abortion) should be accessible to all people, Biedrón said.

As for transnational solidarity, in Belgium, for example, there is a group (Abortion Without Borders) for Polish women to come to the country for a safe and legal abortion. It also offeres financial support for those who need it.

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