Defying Poland’s restrictive abortion law

Left to their own devices, tens of thousands of Polish women travel abroad to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Poland has one of the harshest abortion laws in Europe, forcing women to leave the country [AP]

Warsaw, Poland – Eleven hours – this is how long Ania travelled from her hometown of Warsaw to an unassuming clinic in the border town of Prenzlau, in northwestern Germany. 

She is among the tens of thousands of women defying Poland’s restrictive abortion law and travelling abroad to terminate their pregnancy, according to local human rights groups.

Sitting up on her hospital bed two hours after undergoing the procedure, the 23-year-old office clerk lets out a sigh of relief, which is quickly followed by a bout of anger.

“I am so happy that finally it’s all over. But I am still angry. Why do I have to travel abroad for hours to do something pertaining to my own body?” she asks exasperated. 

De facto ban

Poland has one of the harshest abortion laws in Europe. It is a crime to terminate a pregnancy in the eastern European country except in three circumstances: cases of foetal abnormality, risk to the health and life of the mother, and rape or incest. 

Despite these exceptions, in reality access to abortion, where the law permits it, remains extremely limited.


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travel all around the country to access a procedure they are legally entitled to, because nobody wants to do it.”]

Regional and international accountability bodies, such as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, have been consistently condemning the Polish government for failing to ensure that women can obtain abortions in accordance with the law. 

Many medical professionals in staunchly Roman Catholic Poland invoke the “conscience clause” and refuse to perform abortions on the grounds it conflicts with their personal values and beliefs. Sometimes the provision is used by entire hospitals. 

Although the law requires doctors to refer women to a provider, where she has a real possibility of obtaining the service, rights groups report this rarely takes place. 

“There are whole regions in Poland where women can’t terminate their pregnancy,” says Romuald Debski, a Warsaw-based obstetrician and one of the handful of doctors who publicly admit to carrying out abortions. 

In the end, he says, they are forced to “travel all around the country to access a procedure they are legally entitled to, because nobody wants to do it”.

According to Ministry of Health statistics, in 2012 public health institutions – the only providers allowed to carry out the procedure – terminated 701 pregnancies, of which only one had resulted from rape.

“These figures, in a country with 40 million inhabitants, illustrate the magnitude of the problem,” Adam Bodnar, a lawyer and vice president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera. 

Bodnar asserts that next to the abuse of the “conscience clause”, the criminalisation of service providers is the leading factor behind mass refusals to carry out abortions. 

Atmosphere of fear

“Doctors prefer not to do it because they fear being accused of inappropriately assessing the situation and being charged,” he says.

They are also increasingly becoming the subjects of campaigns by pro-life groups, according to Debski, who himself was singled out by the Pro Foundation – the leading anti-abortion organisation in the country – whose members regularly protested outside his hospital. 

Doctor Debski Bielany is one of the few doctors to openly carry out abortions [Krzysztof Wrobel/Al Jazeera]

However, it is not only the medical professionals who are put in the crosshairs of pro-life supporters.

Women seeking to terminate pregnancies often face stigma, intimidation, and misinformation from health professionals and the clergy – a phenomenon that saw a number of cases before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

In 2008, the country was shaken by the story of a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape. Despite being legally eligible for an abortion, as later confirmed by the Strasbourg court, she had been turned away from hospitals in her hometown and in Warsaw.

Confidential details pertaining to her case were being leaked to pro-life activists and members of the Church who followed her around the country. She only managed to terminate her pregnancy after the intervention of the then-minister of health Ewa Kopacz.

Today more than ever pro-life activists seem determined to further restrict the current legislation. 

Last year, the Pro Foundation tabled a bill in the Polish Parliament calling for the ban of abortion of heavily damaged or genetically ailing foetuses. 

It was rejected by the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, in September. The draft law was introduced through a “citizen initiative”, which allows members of the public to propose legislation, provided they gather at least 100,000 signatures under their petition.

Executive director Mariusz Dzierzawksi is adamant the group has not had its final say and promised it will “take up further legislative initiatives to change these inhumane laws”.

“The law that allows for the killing of innocent people is lawless. Hitler’s laws allowed for the killing of Jews. Democratic countries in Europe allow for the killing of people before they are born. This is a disgrace,” he said. 

Janusz Rudzinski insists harsher laws will not reduce the number of abortions [Wojciech Jodko/Al Jazeera] 

 Law versus reality

Dr Janusz Rudzinski, head obstetrician at the Prenzlau clinic in Germany, where almost 1,000 Polish women terminate their pregnancies each year, says harsher laws won’t change anything. 

“When a woman really wants to get an abortion, nothing will stop her. Three-quarters of my Polish patients these days have already tried to terminate their pregnancy at home by taking some pills they ordered online, but these don’t always work,” Poland-born Rudzinski told Al Jazeera. 

Rights groups estimate that up to 150,000 women terminate their pregnancies outside Poland’s public hospitals and the majority now travel abroad. Most make their way to Germany, Slovenia, Holland and the United Kingdom.

“Here you’d pay from 2,000 to 10,000 PLN [$575-$2,812], while abroad the prices vary between $490-$856. And abortions carried out abroad are conducted in safe conditions because they are legal.”

Karolina Wieckiewicz, a lawyer at the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, a local reproductive rights NGO, said women increasingly travel abroad because prices for backstreet abortions in Poland and legal abortions abroad are now incomparable. 

Lawyer Karolina Wieckiewicz [Krzysztof Wrobel] 

Asked for a comment, Krzysztof Bak, the Ministry of Health spokesman, sent an email statement listing the relevant provisions of the abortion law. 

Referring to situations when doctors refuse to terminate pregnancies, he underlined that “the provisions of the aforementioned legislation give patients the right to appeal the opinion or the decision of the medical professional”.

Wieckiewicz dismissed the ministry’s response as “typical” and the appeal process as “non-functional”.

“The authorities don’t want to address this problem. They just don’t care,” she says.

Source: Al Jazeera