Abortion: A Polish Perspective

// 29 April 2010

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.

Comments From You

Lisa Hallgarten // Posted 29 April 2010 at 1:16 pm

There are many websites selling abortion medication. EFC does NOT recommend or endorse these sites. Websites selling medication are unregulated and there is no guarantee that they will sell the correct medication or sell it in appropriate, safe or effective doses.

Safe abortion is available to women in mainland Britain free on the NHS (http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/sexualhealth/pages/abortionyouroptions.aspx), and practical support can be provided by the Abortion Support Network for women (http://www.abortionsupport.org.uk/) who need to travel to mainland UK from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to access a safe abortion here.

The only not-for-profit website selling abortion medication and staffed by medical doctors that is known to EFC is Women on Web (www.womenonweb.org) which will NOT sell to women in countries where abortion is legal. An evaluation of their work was published in a medical journal in 2008 (http://www.bjog.org/details/journalArticle/122457/Using_telemedicine_for_termination_of_pregnancy_with_mifepristone_and_misoprosto.html)

Lisa Hallgarten, Director of Education For Choice (EFC)

Melanie // Posted 29 April 2010 at 3:02 pm

Thank you for this article. I lived in Poland for a few years, have many friends in Poland, some of whom have suffered greatly because of the abortion laws there.

I read about and was horrified (but not surprised) by Alicja Tysiąc’s experience. Also I think there was a case I read about last year of a 14-year-old rape victim who was subjected to anti-abortion campaigners visiting her in her hospital bed (presumably with the collusion of hospital staff)and trying to intimidate her into refusing an abortion.

I’m thoroughly ashamed of UK and EU politicians who are happy to collude with the oppression of women’s and gay rights amongst their EU partners.

Hannah // Posted 29 April 2010 at 10:12 pm

Thanks for this article, I didn’t know anything about abortion in Poland before reading it. I was really shocked by the whole Alicja Tysiąc case, poor woman. What an absurd and misogynist law. Are there any Polish organisations working to change it? Good luck to them, it brings shame on Poland that they haven’t bothered to have a serious discussion about the law after the ECHR ruling, and makes me kind of annoyed that such an illiberal country can be part of the EU (though I am glad that Polish women are able to come to the UK for abortions.) I know people complain about the UK, but when I read things like this I feel very glad to live in a country that’s generally pretty liberal.

debi // Posted 30 April 2010 at 12:36 pm

please see this for european pro-choice network –

We are very concerned by the criminalisation of abortion in some member states of the European Union, with the increasing activities of anti-choice groups and politicians within the EU, as well as the problems of access to abortion in countries where abortion is legal.

For these reasons, we think it is very necessary to join together and share our knowledge and experiences and establish a pro-choice network using the blog

http://www.europeanprochoicenetwork.wordpress.com

This blog will be used for;

1. Exchanging information on

· the activities of anti-choice groups and politicians in our countries;

· problems regarding abortion access also in countries where abortion is legal;

· experiences in opposing anti-choice activities in legal ways as well as campaigning, demonstrating and using internet platforms.

2. Establishing a pro-choice solidarity network

· for exploring possibilities to support each other in researching and campaigning in our individual countries or within the EU;

· exploring the possibility for public hearings in the EU Parliament;

· organising further meetings and conferences.

Please check the blog for further information.

We are asking you to please spread the word widely about the blog so that people from all EU countries can follow the blogs activities. You are welcome to post any information concerning the issue of abortion and reproductive rights on this blog.

The focus on the EU is not to impose any exclusions, so any information from other countries is welcome as well and we are aware of the necessity to cooperate and exchange worldwide.

The focus on EU countries nevertheless is to explore possibilities to use EU institutions for our purpose.

Postings in any language are welcome, but we appreciate a summary in English. (You can use translation websites like http://translate.google.com or http://babelfish.yahoo.com)

If you like, we can sign you up with your own account as an author. Otherwise you can send information to this email adress

prochoicenet@yahoo.com

and we will post your info. Nevertheless if you want to contribute frequently, we would ask you to sign up as a contributor.

Please consider that this blog is brandnew so keep checking within the next months how it will develop.

If you have any questions about how to use this blog or any other comments please ask us for advice at:

prochoicenet@yahoo.com

We hope for a fruitful and vivid exchange.

All the best from Sarah, Agata and Stephanie

coldharbour // Posted 30 April 2010 at 2:12 pm

I thought it was rather odd to have such a minimal reference to the position of the Roman Catholic Church with regards to this issue. Statistically Poland has one of the highest Mass attending populations in Europe, a fact that has undoubtedly more influence on the general level of social hostility to abortion than the transient right-wing government (although as the author stated they are relatively reflexive).

Northumbrian // Posted 30 April 2010 at 11:35 pm

There is another angle to this. I remember seeing a report on this issue some years ago, which pointed out that then (and I would guess now as well) that there was a huge social stigma against contraception in Poland.

The result was that women were faced with these choices:

1] No sex unless you wanted a child. The St Augustine option.

2] Having sex and putting up with an unwanted child. The modern Catholic option.

3] Having sex and hoping nothing would happen, but if it did reckon on getting an abortion somehow. The “she was unlucky,” secularist answer.

4] Using contraception all the time – which meant declaring yourself a whore all the time, and that the neighbours would find out.

In any society with many farmers in it, getting pregnant out of marriage is “something that happens.” And often it’s not even a bad thing – proof of fertility can make you more marriageable. So some of the teachings of the Catholic Church have always been treated with a degree of laxity.

However, a general social attitude which links contraception and prostitution will take a long time to break. This is especially so when the Catholic Church sees contraception as a way of breaking their hold over sexual behaviour. Even in Protestant 19C England, and secular 20C England this took a long time.

If I were a Polish feminist I think this is where I would start. The best way not to have an unwanted child is not to conceive one.

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