Polish women's groups work to circumvent new abortion regime
October’s court ruling outlaws abortions even in the case of foetal abnormalities
People demonstrate against restrictions on abortion law on Women’s Day in Krakow, Poland, on March 8th earlier this year. Photograph: Beata Zawrzel/ NurPhoto via Getty
Justyna Wydrzynska draws an exhausted breath before describing her long days assisting the Polish women who call her each day for help.
A member of the ironically titled Abortion Dream Team, a collective which helps Polish women secure terminations abroad, Ms Wydrzynska said the women who reached her were living in a waking nightmare.
“It is our busiest time ever, we’re getting 40-50 calls a day, for us this is really new – and sad,” she said.
Last October Poland’s constitutional court, a legally contested tribunal, effectively outlawed abortion. It was a major victory for Poland’s influential Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups after a three-decade campaign.
Women’s support groups say many Polish women who become pregnant are now avoiding their doctors, fearing they will be registered by the authorities. The centre-right Rzeczpospolita daily has likened Poland’s new abortion regime to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale.
“Normally we deal with unwanted pregnancies,” Ms Wydrzynska said. “But now we’re also getting calls from people who find something wrong with the foetus and need psychological support.”
October’s court ruling, which cannot be appealed and became law in January, outlaws abortions even in the case of foetal abnormalities. The only remaining circumstances for a Polish woman to end a pregnancy legally in her home country are in cases of rape, incest or health risk. Based on the most recent figures, this means about 98 per cent of previously legal abortions are now illegal.
For Wanda Nowicka, a veteran women’s rights campaigner, the ruling has created a “dramatic situation” for women. They were already vulnerable, she said, but now many fear what Poland’s national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government has planned next.
“The government believes it has the right to subjugate women so they won’t be able to have abortions anywhere else,” said Ms Nowicka, a liberal opposition politician in Warsaw.
Before the ruling, women’s rights groups estimate at least 80,000 Polish women sought terminations illegally or abroad, most commonly in Germany and the Netherlands. But pandemic restrictions have made such trips impossible and many women are now turning to pills while others seek terminations in the neighbouring Czech Republic.
A political proposal to make it easier for them to do so triggered a letter last March from the Polish embassy in Prague to the Czech health ministry. It warned that the proposed amendment, drafted by a representative in the Czech upper house, would see a “flourishing of abortion tourism in the Czech Republic” and encourage Polish citizens to “violate the laws of their own country”.
“Therefore, we consider it unfortunate if the legislative proposals legalising commercial abortion tourism are openly justified by the desire to circumvent Polish legislation protecting unborn human life,” added the letter from the Polish embassy.
According to Czech magazine Respekt, Prague’s health minister replied that his government would not intervene given the proposal originated in parliament and abortion was legal in Czech territory. Earlier, Czech family minister Jana Malacova described efforts to strip women of their right to decide on pregnancy and motherhood as a “return to the Middle Ages”.
Poland’s battle over abortion dates back to 1993 when the relatively liberal communist-era abortion regime was tightened, after energetic lobbying by Poland’s powerful Catholic Church. Since then Poland has had one of Europe’s most restrictive regimes, allowing about 1,000 legal terminations annually.
Lobbying continued from the pulpit – on abortion and for church-allied PiS politicians. Last October’s ruling by the constitutional court president, Julia Przylebska, a close ally of PiS co-founder Jaroslaw Kaczynski, found that abortions in cases of foetal abnormality legalised “eugenic practices with regard to an unborn child, thus denying it the respect and protection of human dignity”.
As Poland’s constitution guarantees a right to life, she added, terminating a pregnancy based on the health of the foetus amounted to a “forbidden form of discrimination”.
Mass protests that followed the October ruling, and its transposition into law, have since abated. On Wednesday, four months into the new regime, Polish anti-abortion campaigners stood in central Warsaw collecting signatures demanding an outright ban on abortion.
“Now they’re determined the law should equate a termination with manslaughter or murder,” said Wanda Nowicka. “Fundamentalists never stop.”