Poland’s great leap backwards


Pro-choice protestors in Krakow this October, demonstrating against a proposed tightening of Poland’s abortion law PHOTO/Artur Widak/Nurphoto/Getty

Polish women, faced with a proposed law that further restricted abortions, organised huge protests to challenge it. But their reproductive rights are still at risk.

Marta Syrwid travelled to a private clinic in Slovakia for an abortion this January, as thousands of Polish women regularly do. Syrwid, 30, a journalist, told her story in Gazeta Wyborcza (1): ‘2 January. The woman who was supposed to be driving us was still drunk from New Year’s Eve. A man drove us instead and she told him the way. There were three of us in the back, squeezed together in a car that was in a terrible state. It stank of booze and we couldn’t open the windows.’

Abortion was legal and free in Poland from 1956 to 1993 but the country’s current legislation is among the most restrictive in Europe, with only three exemptions from an outright ban — a risk to the mother’s health, a foetal abnormality or illness, or a pregnancy because of rape or incest. And still there are hurdles: ‘Even when a woman is in theory entitled to a free, legal abortion in a public hospital, she often can’t get one,’ says Krystyna Kacpura who runs Federa, the Federation for Women and Family Planning. The majority of doctors invoke the conscience clause or delay until the legal 22-week time limit expires. They request additional examinations and don’t tell patients their rights, despite a legal obligation. ‘And what’s worse,’ says Kacpura, ‘they exert psychological pressure to make them change their minds. They play down the risks of serious health problems in the foetus and say “Of course your child has a brain abnormality but look, he’s moving his legs”.’ Doctors also fear stigma: ‘Some have had their cars vandalised. Online you see “Don’t go to so-and-so. He’s a murderer”. Catholics demonstrate outside hospitals holding graphic images. In some southern cities, there are no longer any hospitals prepared to carry out a termination.’

A question of dignity

The official figures show that the number of legal abortions in Poland has dropped from 130,000 a year in the 1980s to under 2,000 for a population of 38.5 million. That is still too many, say activists from the Fundacja PRO — Prawo do ?ycia (Fo

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