Polish women cross border to Germany for abortions
Irish among those having terminations in Germany due to its similar laws to Poland
Dr Janusz Rudzinski: the Polish-born gynaecologist has practised in Germany since 1981
Demonstrating against plans by the Law and Justice government to totally ban abortion in Poland even for medical reasons or following rape. Photograph: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Dressed in a blue check hospital gown, Anna sits up in her bed and brushes away the biscuit crumbs on the blanket, eyeing her visitor with alert, brown eyes. How is she feeling?
“Great, better than normal to be honest,” she says, “and more relieved than before.”
Before, the 32-year-old made the 600km journey from her home in Poland to this hospital in Prenzlau, 90 minutes north of Berlin, to have an abortion.
Anna is just one of hundreds of Polish women who come here annually for an abortion. Everything is clean, tidy and calm in the small Prenzlau hospital: grey, polished, marble-effect linoleum, cream walls, and peach-coloured curtains.
In an oblong hospital room, Anna and another woman are lying in bed, recovering from the anaesthetic and the short, four-minute procedure a few minutes earlier.
Listening to them talk is Dr Janusz Rudzinski, a Polish-born gynaecologist who has practised in Germany since 1981. Before that, he worked in Sweden.
In those Cold War days, women from Sweden took the boat to Poland – so liberal was the abortion regime in the then communist country.
But not anymore. Since 1993, Poland has had one of Europe’s most restrictive regimes, allowing abortions up to the 25th week in only three cases: after rape or incest, if the child is “seriously malformed” or if the mother’s health is in danger.
But even women who fulfil these criteria can find it difficult to find a willing doctor, pro-choice groups say.
Soon, they fear, it will be impossible.
In recent months, Poland’s national conservative government and the influential Catholic Church have thrown their weight behind an amendment that would impose an almost complete ban on abortion.
Pro-choice groups fear an effective abortion ban and have organised marches in Polish cities drawing hundreds of thousands of women, many waving coat hangers in protest.
What does Anna make of it all? “It’s an abysmal situation that leaves me speechless,” she says in her hospital bed. As she speaks, her hands are in perpetual motion, brushing, pushing away crumbs and something else invisible.
“A majority in my country now seems to view a woman just as an instrument for giving birth to children, not someone who should be allowed make their own decisions.”
Anna, who is unmarried, says she wants children, but is concentrating on her career now. She lived in the Netherlands for six years and says she could have gone there instead of here – or tried to procure an illegal abortion in Poland.
Officially, about 1,800 legal abortions are performed in Poland annually. Add illegal backstreet abortions and terminations abroad and women’s groups estimate the true figure is around 150,000.
Anna says her partner knows she is here and her family supports her decision. In Prenzlau, she is accompanied by a friend standing in the corner, Agata.
“I’m religious so it’s difficult for me but this is my best friend, it’s her decision and I couldn’t leave her alone,” says Agata.
“I worked for a few years in Switzerland and became more liberal. Poland is somewhat . . . limited.”
Just 50km across the border in Poland, the anti-abortion organisation PRO – Prawo do zycia (Right to Life) – would like to put women such as Anna behind bars for five years at least, for murder.
Prime minister Beata Szydlo says she will allow her MPs a free vote on the issue in parliament, but has made clear she supports a tighter abortion regime – as does Jaroslaw Kaczynski, influential leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Political and social pressure
Other women find the clinic on the internet and come to him directly after trying to solve things themselves.
“They take the pills to damage the foetus and, though it might die, it sometimes doesn’t detach, so I have to empty the uterus,” he says.
In Germany, an abortion costs about €500, including for obligatory counselling at least three days before the procedure.
The north-eastern state of Brandenburg, with its land border to Poland, is a popular destination. Brandenburg state statistics don’t break down abortions by nationality but, of over 3,700 procedures there last year, one in five was for a woman who was not German.
On this day, Dr Rudzinski says he has performed nine abortions, in a year of about 1,000 – mostly for Polish women. But not just Polish.
“I have four or five Irish women a year, too. I guess they find out about us through Polish friends in Ireland, though my English isn’t good enough and I don’t ask,” he says in his office.
“Most women who come to me are strong, independent people, not the victims they are made out to be – particularly in the Polish media.”
Back in her hospital room, Anna is waiting impatiently to return to Poland, even though it is a home where she feels increasingly unwelcome, as a woman.
“If things keep going this way I will have to leave again,” she says. “The church simply wants us women to obey, and those who don’t obey should face the inquisition.”
With an angry laugh, her brown eyes flashing, she adds: “Perhaps they’d like to burn women like us at the stake. That’d solve the problem, too.”