Sunday

15th Dec 2019

Investigation

The Abortion Exodus - more Poles and Croats going abroad

  • Anti-abortion propaganda from Croatia's '40 Days for Life' event in March 2019

"The fact that I had to terminate the second pregnancy was terribly sad," said Warsaw-based Anna, now 39.

She was in her tenth week, and her doctors advised her to take a test to check for chromosomal abnormality, which discovered Down's Syndrome.

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  • The hospital in Brezice, Slovenia

"100 percent probability," Anna said, "no hope for any other result."

Anna (EUobserver is using a pseudonym to protect her privacy) qualified for a legal termination under Polish law, but a woman needs a doctor to write a referral.

"Many won't," said Anna, "either because they signed a conscience clause that they won't perform abortions, or don't want any trouble.

"There was a real chance of going from a hospital to a hospital, passing banners with torn foetuses on my way, hoping someone would take pity on me. Hoping that the nurses wouldn't let me know they think I'm a murderess.

"I couldn't imagine going through this," she said. "I went to Germany, to a small town near the border.

"There were ten people in the waiting room, a lot of young girls, but those of my age too. All Polish. The procedure took 15 minutes. Physically I was relieved, but mentally I was broken. Not because of any sense of guilt - only sadness and despair."

Since 1993, abortion has been illegal in Poland, except in cases of a threat to the mother's life, a result of a criminal act, such as rape, or foetal impairment.

But more women are following Anna's example of leaving Poland to access abortions which should be legal at home.

In 2010, around 15 percent of these abortions took place abroad, according to the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa).

But now the president of the NGO, Krystyna Kacpura, estimates only 20 percent take place in Poland. Destinations include Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Belgium, the UK and Slovakia.

The other option for Polish women is to import abortion pills from abroad, which is illegal.

In Berlin, the organisation Ciocia Basia was set up in 2015 to help Polish women access abortions in the German capital.

"We are seeing an increase in women who should be able to get abortions in Poland legally," says Alex, a volunteer at Ciocia Basia. "Right now, the rough estimate is that this is ten to 20 percent of cases - usually rape or malformation of the foetus."

Croatia to Slovenia: cross-border abortion run

In the sleepy Slovenian town of Brezice, near the Croatian border, is the smallest general hospital in the country.

Every week, women from Croatia contact the hospital seeking an abortion. Their numbers are increasing. In the entire year of 2018 there were 54 requests - in the first three months alone of 2019, this grew to 25. Many come from the capital, Zagreb, only 32km away.

The route of such 'abortion tourism' has changed.

Natasha Kocnar, the hospitals' head gynaecologist, said that when she was a child in the 1970s, women came from Germany to Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia, for an abortion.

Almost all the women in Brezice seek medical abortions, which includes two pills to take over a 48-hour period, and thus necessitates two visits.

A key reason for women travelling to Slovenia for abortions is that the majority of medical staff in Croatia refuse to perform terminations.

Since 2003, doctors in Croatia have been allowed to opt-out of abortions, and their numbers are increasing.

By 2018, 59 percent of health workers in hospitals where women can request abortions refuse to perform the procedure - a rise of four percent on 2014, according to Croatia's Ombudswoman for Gender Equality.

Although medical abortion became legal in Croatia this year, Sanja Cesar, activist at Zagreb-based NGO Center for Education, Counselling and Research CESI said "60 percent of gynaecologists will still use conscience clause... therefore, this will not increase access to abortion and women will still travel abroad."

The situation is similar in Poland. Since the conservative PiS party took over Poland's government in 2015, many doctors have signed a conscience clause.

Now only 10 percent of facilities (around 40 from 400) obliged by the state to provide the procedure, according to Federa.

"There are whole regions that don't perform abortions," says Federa's Kacpura. "Hospitals as state institutions are not allowed to use the conscience clause - this is illegal, but nobody pays any attention to this."

Warsaw-based ob-gynaecologist Barbara Antoniak, talked to us about why she refuses to perform abortions under any circumstances.

"I don't do abortions," said Antoniak. "because you don't kill a human being."

When a patient is entitled to legal abortion, Antoniak argues she would talk to the woman and help her to cope with the situation. "If the child dies spontaneously, it will die spontaneously, and not by our hands," she added.

Both Croatia and Poland are Catholic-majority countries - around 86 percent of Croats identify themselves as Catholic and 87.5 percent of Poles, according to 2011 censuses.

Faith-related groups push for legislative change in both countries. In Poland in 2016, influential pro-life think tank, Ordo Iuris prepared a draft for a civic legislation initiative on equal legal protection for children before and after birth.

Backed by 400,000 signatures, this initiative called for a blanket ban on the practice.

After mass protests, the law did not pass - neither did a similar initiative in 2018 to close a loophole in the abortion law allowing abortions in the case of foetal impairments.

Earlier this year an Ordo Iuris institute opened in Croatia, cementing ties between the two Catholic-majority countries.

In a statement, Ordo Iuris told us no financial transactions take place between the two organisations.

But the missions of two institutes are similar. "Our experts share with our colleagues from Croatia expert knowledge, experience and know-how," said the statement.

In Croatia, the government has set up an advisory group to examine abortion laws in other EU countries, as part of a move to change the current law, which dates back to 1977.

If Croatia adopts a progressive law on pregnancy termination, Sanja Cesar of NGO Cesi said it is possible "ultra-conservatives will try to organise a referendum on abortion."

Standing against abortion, Zagreb University's priest Father Damir Stojic believes that Croatia "is a pro-life nation".

However, he argues that if there was a public vote on the subject, it is unlikely his views would prevail.

"Most people would be pro-life," he said, "but they wouldn't take away someone's right to have an abortion."

Author bio

Lina Vdovii and Michael Bird write for The Black Sea newsite and are the authors of the previous piece in this series, Why 60 Romanian hospitals are refusing abortions.

Blaz Zgaga is a Slovenian investigative journalist, co-author of "In the Name of the State", on secret weapons smuggling in the Balkans during the armed conflicts of the 1990s. He now works with Nacional in Croatia and for European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) projects.

Additional reporting by Katarzyna Wezyk. This report was made possible with support from Journalism Fund. A longer version of the Croatian part of this story is available in Nacional.

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