Tug-of-war over the right to choose


The dramatic case of a 14-year-old girl who sought a termination to her pregnancy became a high-profile battle between the two sides of the bitter Polish abortion debate, writes Derek Scally.

ON A BUSY Warsaw street, a dazed teenage girl trots to keep up with her mother, who strides through the crowd, throwing anxious glances behind her. A small woman is following them, running to keep up. The mother hails a taxi and jumps in with her daughter.

"Just drive, just drive!" she screams at the driver. Outside, she hears the small woman calling in the taxi's licence plate on her mobile phone. Then the passenger door is ripped open and their pursuer climbs in.

"Leave us alone, woman!" screams the mother.

The smaller woman ignores her and barks at the speechless taxi driver: "If you don't want to have problems with the police you'll stay right where you are." The woman delivering the orders isn't an undercover police officer chasing bank robbers. She is a pro-life activist; the prize she is chasing lies inside the 14-year-old.

It's the dramatic high point of an extraordinary tale that played out last month, of an ordinary mother and daughter in the limbo of Poland's abortion laws, caught between passive public officials and intimidating pro-life activists.

The story began several weeks earlier when Anna, a single mother in Lublin, southwest Poland, got a call from a local gynaecologist. The doctor said that Anna's daughter was pregnant, even though she was underage. The father, also underage, was a boy in school, the circumstances of the pregnancy unclear. Today, Agata, the pseudonym by which the 14-year-old is now known in Poland, is reticent about how she became pregnant.

"I knew I was pregnant but it didn't feel like it was happening to me," she says, sitting in a Lublin basement bar, studying her fingers as she relives her ordeal. She is a gamine, dark-haired girl with jewel-like eyes, one minute a nervous child, the next an engaging young woman. She is a collection of pubescent contradictions who falls silent when her mother interrupts her.

"She knew she was pregnant, but she didn't know what it meant," says Anna, a thin, outspoken woman with long blond hair and a friendly, tired smile.

"When I heard, I just thought: 'What to do? What to do? Go somewhere, do something.' I felt like I was watching my own life from a distance."

When mother and daughter agreed that an abortion would be best, Anna knew they would have a fight on their hands. But she says she had no idea of the battle they would face.

Along with Ireland, Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in Europe.

Termination is permitted in only three cases: where the life or health of the mother is at risk, where the foetus is severely and irreversibly damaged or incurably ill, or where the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act. In Agata's case it was the third category: both she and the boy were minors. But the reality of modern Poland is that these already restrictive laws are applied even more restrictively. Gynaecologists may refuse to perform an abortion for reasons of conscience. If so, they are obliged under law to find another doctor who will comply with the woman's wishes. But there is no legal mechanism to sanction doctors who refuse to do so, which often happens.

"The government accepts that women have these limited rights to abortion under the law, but says it doesn't have an obligation to make these rights real," says Wanda Nowicka, head of the Women's Federation in Warsaw, and the country's leading campaigner for the liberalisation of reproductive rights.

Some 30 years ago, she says, women from all over Europe headed to communist Poland for abortions. Today, Poland is experiencing a return to "traditional" Catholic values with an active pro-life lobby and a growing number of doctors who refuse to perform even legal abortions. In 2006, among 10 million Polish women of a reproductive age, just 340 women had legal abortions, down from 682 a decade earlier.

RECENTLY IN PARLIAMENT, a new law to allow for the protection of life from the moment of conception only narrowly failed to pass.

"It's a top-down movement of Catholic clergy, opportunisitic politicians and conservative lawyers that want further restrictions," says Nowicka, pointing to a recent survey showing that 46 per cent are in favour of more liberal regulations. With the restrictive regulations, between 50,000 and 80,000 women have back-street abortions each year, costing as much as 4,000 Polish zlotych (€1,200) a time; others travel to Britain, Ukraine and Belarus. An unknown number order so-called "abortion pills" via the internet.

Anna and Agata decided against a backstreet abortion and decided to proceed officially. It was a decision they came to regret as one hospital after another in Lublin rejected their request, claiming they were unsure whether they were legally entitled to perform the procedure.

"The law is clear on this, it's people who make it complicated, and you can create obstacles if you want, without fear of disciplinary proceedings," says Monika Gasiorowska, lawyer for Anna and Agata.

"Officials told Anna she needed one statement, then another, she needed signatures, then witnessed signatures. All unnecessary obstacles. This was a crime, we had statements, but they kept putting obstacles in her way."

As her mother battled the bureaucrats, Agata spent a week waiting in a Lublin hospital as the 12-week deadline neared, after which it would be illegal to have an abortion.

A frequent visitor was Fr Krzysztof Podstawka, a pro-life activist and head of the local church-sponsored centre for single mothers. Fr Podstawka, a tanned, handsome 39-year-old, grew up in Lublin. At a cafe behind the city's Catholic University, he speaks in an earnest, modulated tone about how he became involved in the Agata case.

"I heard through the hospital that there was a girl there who needed help. There were signals that her decision to have an abortion was not fully independent," he says. "I decided to drop by to talk to her because I felt she should know all her options. I got the impression after talking to her that here was a girl who was expecting my help."

Today, he declines to elaborate on who at the hospital contacted him, and is unclear about what signals he received. But, after meetings Agata several times, he produced a letter from her in which she wrote that she was prepared to keep the baby.

"Fr Krzysztof pressured me to write the letter. I didn't think he would use it against me," says Agata, shaking her head at the memory. "He cared more about the baby than me, he would have done anything to save the baby without any regard for me."

Fr Podstawka denies pressuring Agata to write the letter, claiming she had told school friends that she wanted a baby.

After a week and no abortion, Agata and Anna left the Lublin hospital. Fr Podstawka heard through sources he declines to identify that they had contacted the Women's Federation and were travelling to Warsaw to go through with the abortion.

Mother and daughter, confident they had left their problems behind in Lublin, were shocked when the priest walked into the Warsaw clinic. "I had business in Warsaw and decided to drop by the hospital," he says.

Anna and Agata don't believe that; they say he obtained Agata's medical records from fellow pro-lifers at Lublin hospital, a breach of patient confidentiality.

"He went to the hospital in Warsaw on purpose, 1,000 per cent," says Anna vigorously. "I'd cut off my hand to swear that he came to the hospital on purpose." Shortly after Fr Podstawka arrived in Warsaw, Agata's details appeared on the internet and events spiralled out of control.

HUNDREDS OF E-MAILS began arriving in the hospital administration office, and the phones starting ringing incessantly. A crowd of pro-life campaigners picketed the hospital entrance and smuggled in gifts to Agata: a box of chocolates with a card reading "Open your heart"; a foetus development picture book. Anna's hopes that everyone would leave them alone were draining away, replaced by constant, growing psychological pressure.

"We wanted to be polite to Fr Podstawka as we're talking to you now," says Anna. "But I simply cannot understand how complete strangers forced themselves so brutally into our lives with no respect whatsoever."

As a media circus pitched up outside the hospital, the hospital director and a city official held a crisis meeting with Anna to explain why they would not now be able to perform the abortion.

"They showed me hundreds of e-mails from pro-lifers, starting with one from Fr Podstawka, containing Agata's personal data. I was so emotional I broke down in tears," says Anna. "I started screaming: 'What the f**k do they want from us?' Then the city hall official said that if they went ahead with the abortion, the protesters would ruin the hospital. 'They won't leave us alone, they'll destroy the hospital's reputation, women will be afraid to come here in future.' "

Unknown to Anna at the time, pro-life campaigners had lobbied Lublin family court to strip her of custody of Agata. The grounds: suspicion that she was forcing her daughter to have an abortion. A fax to that effect was sent to the hospital in Warsaw, just as a distraught Anna left with Agata, pushing her way through the crowd of campaigners outside.

One of them followed them through the streets of Warsaw, shouting "Agata, I love you!" When that didn't slow them down, she cornered them in the taxi, announcing: "This woman has been stripped of her parental rights."

"I don't know how she knew about the Lublin court ruling," says Anna. "It wasn't even public yet."

By now in panic, Anna dragged Agata from the taxi and hailed a passing police car that took them to the next police station. When the police heard about the Lublin court decision, Fr Podstawka had shown up once again, and mother and daughter were returned to Lublin in a police van. There, they were separated and Agata was placed in juvenile care.

After two unsuccessful attempts to have an abortion, confronting a pro-life mob and being chased through the streets of Warsaw, the 14-year-old was still pregnant and now very much alone. She was headline news, but her only contact with the outside world was the chirruping of her mobile phone, delivering text messages of "support" from strangers as well as a steady stream of texts from Fr Podstawka.

He says she contacted him first after he gave her his number. She says the messages were initiated by him, and that he made her number public on the internet.

"He would keep sending messages," Agata remembers, "saying things like: 'People from Krakow, Warsaw and Poznan are joining together to help you. Be brave.' " After 10 hours in the juvenile home, she began bleeding heavily and was rushed to hospital and placed in an isolation ward, away from her mother. For Anna, this was the lowest point in the ordeal.

"They put her in isolation to enable her to make up her own mind. It was just too much to have so many people judging us, judging me as a bad mother, a good-for-nothing," she says.

Unknown to her, assistants of Fr Podstawka were still able to visit Agata. As the pressure continued to build, health minister Eva Kopacz was forced to intervene. She arranged for Agata to travel to a clinic in another city for the termination. After that news leaked via a Catholic news agency, pro-life campaigners called for the minister's resignation; others are campaigning for her excommunication from the Catholic Church.

The health ministry declined requests for an interview, noting only in a written statement that, in Poland, the "right of a pregnant woman to have an abortion in limited circumstances is equivalent to the right of a doctor to deny health services for reasons of conscience".

IN MANY WAYS, the Agata saga is of the government's own making. Two years ago, Poland was instructed to guarantee access to legal abortions by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It awarded damages to Alicia Tysiac, a 36-year-old woman who had sought an abortion when her doctor warned that giving birth again would seriously damage her already failing eye-sight. She was passed from one doctor to the next, each delivering a different diagnosis about the risks of giving birth, until it became too late to terminate the pregnancy. After giving birth, she suffered a retinal haemorrhage, and her sight deteriorated drastically.

In Strasbourg she won costs and €25,000 in damages and a ruling that the Polish government "must not structure its legal framework in such a way as to limit" legal access to abortion. Poland had breached Tysiac's rights by not having an effective mechanism to rule on whether she had met the legal conditions for a legal abortion.

Two years on, provisions to change that situation are in political limbo in parliament, along with the rest of a health reform bill.

"The government has still done nothing," says Tysiac, the euphoria of last year's ruling long past. "There is a complete lack of interest by the government in the situation of women, and they don't act unless they absolutely have to."

She is not sure that the situation will even improve for women refused legal abortions, particularly if the proposed appeals body is filled with doctors who have conscientious objections to abortion.

An even greater obstacle in the battle for greater reproductive rights, says Wanda Nowicka of the Women's Federation, is widespread public hypocrisy towards abortion.

"The hypocrisy extends to women who come to us seeking help. They say they are actually anti-abortion but need an abortion just in their own, special case. It's difficult to plan a revolution with people like that."

HYPOCRISY ABOUT abortion is not limited to Poland, but the Agata case did demonstrate several other uniquely Polish elements.

The strength of the religious right in Poland means that, in the public debate on abortion, it is able to define the terms, for instance, warning that liberalising abortion laws will create what they term a "culture of death".

Public officials defer to these groups, wittingly or unwittingly, and demonstrate little knowledge - or interest in knowing - about Poland's human rights obligations under various international treaties.

The most Polish element of the Agata saga, however, is a tradition of public piety, one that compels people to actively and publicly intervene in a stranger's personal decision. In the battle to prevent a "culture of death", it seems that the end justifies almost all means.

"After learning about the case, I was prepared to do virtually everything for her," said Fr Podstawka. Today, he says he regrets how the case turned into a media circus, and that Agata had an abortion. However he says he acted in clear conscience and alone, denying that he leaked Agata's details. But Agata and her mother say they have seen proof that he did just that.

"Even if law permits abortion of a pregnancy resulting from a forbidden act - sex between minors - it doesn't mean you have to agree to it," says Fr Podstawka. "From the beginning I acted as a man of faith who tried to help a girl in a difficult situation. We lost this battle but the war is not over."

Asked how she may have given him the impression that the decision to terminate the pregnancy was not her own, an incredulous Agata replies with a flash of anger in her eyes.

"Let's put it this way: if the leader of a pro-life movement wants to protect a baby, what else would he say?" In the moral hall of mirrors of modern Poland, little is as it appears. Fr Podstawka sees himself as a man of moral convictions who saw a girl in need and an unborn life to protect. Speaking to him, it is clear that, far from the Polish media portrayals, he is a measured, earnest and intense man of genuine conviction. Women's groups condemn Fr Podstawka for taking a 14-year-old girl hostage in an ideological battle, and the government for allowing him to do so. But the silent majority in Poland isn't lining up to support them in their condemnation.

Agata and Anna feel harassed and betrayed, but have limited options for redress: the only clear breach of the law was the leaking of Agata's medical details. Their lawyer is doubtful that they would secure a conviction if they pursued a case.

"Every day I have to repeat that it's over, it's gone, it won't come back," says Agata slowly. "I will feel it's over once I am able to cry and shout in Fr Krzysztof's face after all he's done to me: 'You shouldn't have done that. All those people shouldn't have done that to me.' I need to do that."

Her mother shakes her head, gathering herself up to head home. "That's not the way to do it, you can't do that," she says. "All I want, the way to solve this, is for our public servants to perform their duty."

Anna and Agata's names have been changed