Thursday

2nd Feb 2023

Opinion

Poland's year of fear - who will die next in abortion crackdown?

  • A pro-choice demonstration in Poland, October 2020. Plans are now afoot to require doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to a central registry - which could lead to worrisome inquiries in cases in which pregnancies don't end in childbirth (Photo: Spacerowiczka)
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Every day, the calls and emails flood in with desperate requests for help.

Since the Constitutional Tribunal decision leading to a law all but eliminating legal abortion in Poland – which came into force one year ago – the number of women and girls contacting the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) has increased threefold.

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They ask for help figuring out where they can go to terminate a pregnancy, or where to turn when doctors have denied them an abortion.

Some are afraid that if they seek an abortion, they will come under legal scrutiny. Others are desperate for contraception, and say even the possibility of pregnancy creates anxiety – what if they need an abortion they can't get? Day in and day out, we field calls from women and girls who feel frightened and alone.

They are right to be afraid.

In September, Izabela, 30, died of septic shock in a southern Poland hospital when doctors would not terminate her pregnancy even though it was no longer viable and she was at risk of infection due to insufficient amniotic fluid.

Text messages she sent from the hospital, later shared publicly by her family, paint a picture of a woman aware she was becoming dangerously ill but powerless against doctors who seemed most concerned about potential legal risks of performing an abortion, even though the law permits abortion when there is a threat to the life or health of the pregnant person.

With every call or e-mail we answer, we worry that the woman or girl on the other end could be next.

Circumstances in Poland today make more such unnecessary deaths likely, if not inevitable. We regularly hear about worrying practices from women with similar lack of amniotic fluid who fear doctors' treatment puts them at risk.

Amidst public outrage, the health ministry clarified that a pregnancy can be terminated "immediately" when there is a threat to a woman's life or health. But fear and uncertainty continue to inhibit medical personnel from providing abortion care, which is part of the comprehensive reproductive health care that is a human right.

In September, medical staff at a Bialystok hospital denied a 26-year-old woman an abortion despite certificates from two psychiatrists attesting to her mental distress after diagnosis of a fatal fetal condition.

The hospital issued a statement linking their refusal of abortion care to the most recent abortion restrictions, saying that "until a year ago, our position would have been clear."

It said that lack of clarity on circumstances in which abortion is permitted means "doctors fear not only the loss of the right to practice their profession, but also criminal liability."

We don't know whether hospital staff would have provided abortion care if the woman's physical health was at risk – but mental health should carry equal weight in assessments of threats to the health or life of pregnant people. Their mental distress when denied abortion care is no less dangerous or debilitating than physical symptoms, and should be treated as such.

The law's chilling effect on medical personnel is real. But even before abortion became illegal on nearly all grounds, the number of medical personnel and facilities that refused to perform abortions on grounds of religious or personnel belief severely limited access to abortion in Poland.

Regardless of the reason, when doctors won't provide abortion care, women's dignity, freedom, health and lives are sacrificed.

The current government's efforts to control women's bodies aren't limited to outlawing abortion. Plans are afoot to require doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to a central registry, which could lead to worrisome inquiries in cases in which pregnancies don't end in childbirth.

There are also moves to establish an Institute of Family and Demography, which would have prosecutorial powers in matters of family law and access to all government-collected data on individuals. The government and right-wing groups supporting it are also working to increase control of schools and taking aim at sexuality education.

No aspect of our lives remains untouched. At every stage of women's reproductive lives, we encounter barriers that are unthinkable to women living in other European Union countries.

Federa was able to help the woman in Bialystok get an abortion at another facility, but women and girls who are isolated or without resources may not be able to get the same help.

Abundant evidence shows that limiting legal abortion does not stop people from needing it or seeking it. A year after legal abortion was virtually eliminated in Poland, the conditions are rife for more senseless deaths. We will keep fighting back. We look to victories for reproductive rights in Ireland, Argentina and Mexico for inspiration.

But every day it feels more and more impossible to be a woman in Poland.

Author bio

Urszula Grycuk is the international advocacy coordinator at the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) in Warsaw, Poland.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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