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Keeping women in the dark: Poland and reproductive rights (Demo)

The story of ‘P’

In 2008, a 14 year old girl, ‘P’, fell pregnant after she was raped. She and her mother, ‘S’, decided that the only viable solution to this desperate situation was to terminate the pregnancy. After obtaining a certificate from the public prosecutor (as Polish law required) which confirmed that her pregnancy was indeed the result of rape, P and S went to a public hospital in Lubin, western Poland.

From the moment they arrived at the hospital they were given misleading advice as to the procedure to be followed. One doctor took P (even though she hadn’t requested it) to see a Catholic priest who tried to convince her to change her mind and pressured her into giving him her mobile phone number. P’s mother, S, was made to sign a consent form which declared (without providing any explanation) that an abortion could result in her daughter’s death. Finally, the head of gynaecology refused to proceed with the abortion, saying that it was against her personal beliefs. By this time, hospital staff had leaked P’s story to the newspapers.

P and S were then forced to travel over 400km to Warsaw, where P was admitted to another hospital. However, staff there soon told them that their hospital was coming under pressure not to perform the required abortion. While this was going on, P was being bombarded with anti-abortion text messages from the priest she’d met in Lubin.

As a result of the stress, P and S decided to leave the Warsaw hospital two days after their arrival. Leaving the building, they were harassed by anti-abortion activists and – shockingly – detained by police who took them to the local police station for questioning.

At the station, P and S were informed that the Lubin Family Court had ordered P to be placed in a juvenile shelter while her mother was divested of parental rights on the grounds that she was ‘pressuring’ her daughter to have an abortion.

P was sent to a juvenile shelter where she became ill and had to be moved to another hospital.  She was eventually allowed to have her abortion, but only after she and her mother complained directly to the Ministry of Health. The abortion was carried out in secret, 500km from P’s home.

But P’s ordeal did not end there. Astonishingly, criminal proceedings had been brought against her for suspected sexual intercourse with a minor; the investigation was dropped eight months after her abortion.

The investigation into her alleged rapist was also discontinued.

P and S later took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), and, in 2012, the Court ruled that Poland had violated P’s privacy, that it had unlawfully detained her, and that it had subjected her to inhuman treatment. In its ruling, the Court repeatedly emphasised how P had been deprived of access to reliable information regarding her condition, her rights and the medical procedure that she sought.

Legislated against, kept in the dark

Although P’s experience was horrific, the situation for women seeking access to abortion in Poland today has worsened considerably since 2008, with successive governments legislating to further restrict access to reproductive rights and keep women in the dark about their options.

The ruling conservative-nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has led a major legislative and cultural assault on reproductive rights in Poland since it came to power in 2015. PiS is openly homophobic, pro-‘traditional values’, anti-‘gender ideology’ (a catchall term covering a range of issues including LGBTQI+ rights, sex education and feminism) and aligned with the Catholic Church. It is a party for which Poland’s restrictive abortion laws – already some of the most severe in the EU – are not restrictive enough: in 2016, the PiS government unsuccessfully tried to introduce an outright ban on abortion; in 2018, it introduced draft legislation that would outlaw abortions in cases of serious foetal abnormality (96% of all abortions in Poland are performed on these grounds).

Currently, Polish law only permits abortion if the pregnancy puts the woman’s life at risk, if there is a severe foetal abnormality, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

PiS might not yet have succeeded in restricting abortion to the degree that it would like to, but it has succeeded in inflicting serious damage on reproductive rights in other ways. In 2017, it saw a law passed that reduced access to the morning-after pill by converting emergency contraception into a prescription drug: now, instead of buying the morning-after pill over the counter, women and girls must make an appointment with a doctor (hoping that the doctor does not refuse treatment due to his/her personal beliefs) and pay full price for the drugs. The groups that have suffered most from this change in law are rape victims, the poor and women living in isolated parts of the country.

Making it difficult to access reliable information is another tactic in the battle to roll back reproductive rights. Currently, the Polish authorities do not collect or make public information on the number, availability and location of medical professionals who are prepared to perform safe and legal abortions; neither do they do so for doctors who refuse to perform abortions for reasons of conscience. The European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development now ranks Poland the lowest country in Europe in terms of access to contraception, availability of online family-planning information and counselling services.

And another blow to access to sexual and reproductive health information could be coming soon, by way of a complete ban on all sex education in schools.  In October 2019, the lower house of parliament passed a sex education bill (styled as an ‘anti-paedophilia’ law) that would criminalise sex educators, teachers, and groups providing information on reproductive health and sexuality to school children. Perpetrators (those considered to be “promoting” or “approving” of sexual activities by a minor) could face up to three years in prison. The European Parliament has condemned this draft law, decrying “the shift in Poland towards misinforming young people, and stigmatising and banning sexuality in education”.

Government V women’s rights groups

One of the inevitable consequences of restricting access to legal abortion is that most abortions in Poland are carried out illegally: official statistics suggest that there are approximately 1,000 legal abortions per year, but illegal abortions are estimated to be around 150,000.

Another consequence is that women are forced to look outside Poland to find a solution to an unwanted pregnancy: according to one 2017 paper, up to 20,000 Polish women go abroad each year to have an abortion (usually to Germany, the Netherlands or the UK).

These women are often assisted by organisations such as the Poland-based Federation for Women and Family Planning and the Germany-based Ciocia Basia (Aunt Betty). These organisations provide women with the necessary information to be able to travel abroad for an abortion, and will often organise the whole process; they also help women find medication to safely administer their own early-stage abortions. December 2019 saw the launch of Abortion Without Borders, an initiative coordinated by a coalition of Polish and international reproductive rights organisations which aims to provide much-needed information, practical support and funding to women in Poland who need abortions (at home or abroad).

As a result of the work they do – and because of the direct challenge this presents to PiS’s desire to promote ‘traditional values’ across Poland – women’s groups are now being targeted by the authorities.

In its 2019 report, The Breath of the Government on My Back, Human Rights Watch (HRW) details the sustained attack on women’s rights groups that has taken place under PiS. Groups defending reproductive rights and victims of domestic violence have had their offices raided and their documents and computers seized by the police (usually for spurious reasons); this has contributed to a climate of fear for women’s rights defenders and has stigmatised them in the eyes of the public. There have also been drastic cuts to government funding of women’s rights organisations, resulting in a severe reduction in their sexual and reproductive health work. All this has gone hand-in-hand with nasty smear campaigns led by PiS leaders and Church-backed groups, who have portrayed women’s civil society organisations as a threat to ‘family values’.

International condemnation

P’s story was one of three referred to by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, in her January 2020 submission on Poland to the Committee of Ministers. Outlining her concerns about the worsening situation for reproductive rights, Mijatović called on the Polish government to introduce “clear, effective and uniform procedures for women to access lawful abortion” and to put in place “concrete and practical measures to provide women seeking lawful abortion with adequate information on the steps they should take to exercise their rights”.

Mijatović was one of multiple human rights experts – including the UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and the UN Committee on Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice – who have condemned Poland’s regressive approach to reproductive rights in recent years.

It’s difficult to tell where Poland might be heading long-term in terms of reproductive rights. But however bleak the immediate future might look, public opinion in this traditionally conservative, Catholic country seems to be becoming more liberal: a 2018 poll commissioned by the Federation for Women and Family Planning showed that 69 percent of respondents believed that women should be able to decide to terminate a pregnancy up to 12 weeks; and a huge 92% of respondents agreed that the state should stay out of an individual’s decisions regarding their reproductive rights.

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