Poland debates ban on abortion

Poland has one of the strictest abortion legislations in Europe and now its parliament might debate a total ban. What are the possible consequences?

Photo: Zorro2212/WikimediaCommons


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On Sunday, April 3rd, seven thousand people met outside of the Polish parliament in Warsaw, each of them holding a coat hanger. The hangers were the symbol chosen to protest the bill of a new law promoted by Catholic pro-life organizations asking for an abortion ban. Not more than 60 years ago, it was with the metal hook of hangers that thousands of Polish women were forced to use for dangerous do-it-yourself abortions. Organized by the leftist party, Together (Razem), more pro-choice demonstrations also took place in other major cities in the country.

On that same Sunday, a letter from the Polish Episcopal Conference supporting the proposed ban on abortion, was read in thousands of churches in Poland. More protests happened on Saturday April 9th with further mobilization launched on Twitter under the hashtag #popieramdziewuchy (I support Polish girls), which was retweeted by thousands of Poles and foreign actresses like Milla Jovovich and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Prime minister and Polish bishops back the anti-abortion bill

The draft of the new act 1 was written by Ordo Iuris (Rule of Law), a foundation that aims to “promote a legal culture based on the respect for human dignity and rights.” It is important to stress how this civic legislation initiative has not made it to the Polish parliament yet. In order to get there, the draft needs 100,000 signatures, which can likely be accomplished within a few weeks. In order to help collect those signatures, the Catholic pro-life organization, Fundacja Pro, has re-launched their “Stop Abortion” 2 campaign.

This is not the first time in recent years that pro-life movements have tried to get a total ban on abortion approved. In August 2011 a draft bill entitled “On the Protection of Human Life from the Moment of Conception,” brought to parliament by the Catholic organization, PRO–Right to Life Foundation, was rejected. 3 And in September 2015, Polish MPs rejected – this time by a narrow margin – another citizen’s bill proposed by Stop Abortion, 4 aiming to ban access to legal abortions in all cases. However, this time parliament may vote differently. Prime Minister Beata Szydło 5 as well as Jarosław Kaczyński, 6 leader of the conservative ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – have already stated they would back the bill.

The support of Mr. Kaczyński is particularly significant as it is the first time that the former premier openly joined sides with anti-abortion campaigners. Between 2005 and 2007, when PiS was in power, he opposed replacing the current abortion law with a more restrictive one, despite the pressure he received from some members of his party. 7 This time, the parliamentary majority won by PiS in the October 2015 elections, has made Mr. Kaczyński bolder, meaning a future approval of the anti-abortion bill is more likely.

With the exception of Ireland, where having an abortion is still forbidden, there’s no other country 8 in the EU that makes legal abortions as difficult as Poland does. The current law, “Act on Family Planning, Protection of the Human Fetus and Conditions for Acceptability of Abortion,” which was approved on January 7th, 1993, 9 states that Polish women can only have a legal abortion if one of three exceptions is met:  the fetus suffers from damages or pathologies, the health of the woman will be threatened by giving birth, or when the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest. According to the data provided by the National Ministry of Health 10, 977 legal abortions were performed in Poland in 2014: 927 of them due to pathologies shown in fetuses by prenatal screenings, 48 because of potential risks for pregnant women and just 2 of them due to rape.

Data from the Centre of Reproductive Rights show that in Poland there were only 2 legal abortions per 1,000 births in 2012. Figures that are strikingly different from other European countries, where the abortion ratio is much higher: there were 253 registered abortions per 1,000 newborns in the UK, 166 in Ukraine and 256 in Spain, a country with deep Catholic roots, but where the influence of the Church is much less powerful than in Poland. 11

Legal and illegal abortions in Poland over the last 60 years

Abortion was legalized in Poland in 1956, 12 but that was changed with the current, much stricter law in 1993. Available statistics show that in the 1960s and 70s there were about 200-250,000 abortions per year in Poland. In the early 1980s abortions decreased to approximately 150,000 per year and from the mid 80s onwards they became less than 100,000 per year. 13 To get an idea of the impact the ’93 law had on these figures, suffice it to say, that there have only been more than 1,000 abortions in one year since it came into force. 14

The huge drop in recorded abortions was not influenced much by access to contraceptives, because Poland banned over-the-counter sales of the so called “morning-after pill,” until April 2015. The birth control pill is now theoretically available in Polish pharmacies to all women over 15 without a medical prescription. 15 However, because it’s still pharmacists, themselves, who made the final decision about whether the pill would be sold without a prescription, many Polish women still struggle to get this contraceptive. That’s why the Dutch pro-choice organization “Women on Waves” has been distributing morning-after pills in Poland, sometimes even with drones from across the German border. 16

Agnieszka Graff-Osser an expert on gender studies and professor at Warsaw University’s American Studies Center tells the V4 Revue that, “the number of legal abortions per year has nothing to do with the reality of how many Polish women have abortions.” According to Graff-Osser, most women who fall under the three exceptions granted by the current legislation, don’t even try to get legal abortions. “The current law is more restrictive in practice than on paper, and getting access to a legal abortion is extremely difficult,” 17 she adds.

Krystyna Kacpura, director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federacja na rzecz Kobiet i Planowania Rodziny), an NGO, confirms Graff-Osser’s claim: “Many women who could have legal abortions, go abroad or do it illegally in private surgeries because they want to avoid social stigma and the complicated procedures required by law.” As Graff-Osser puts it: “Asking for a legal abortion here means going through so much bureaucracy, red tape, refusals and questioning that by the time a woman is able to get it, it could be too late.”

The current limit for having a legal abortion in Poland is the 25th week from conception. After that, women who want to avoid giving birth, have to do it illegally or abroad. There is no official data on such “underground” abortions in Poland, however the Federation for Women and Family Planning has been looking into the matter. “We estimate that at least 150,000 Polish women a year have an abortion,” says Kacpura: “However, we don’t know how many of them have underground abortions in Poland, or how many go abroad, or get abortion pills via Internet,” she adds. These estimates are contested by Polish Catholic pro-life activists, who claim the number of illegal abortions in Poland is between 7,000 and 14,000 a year, 18 but this does not take into account those women having abortions abroad whose number cannot be monitored.

As Monika Płatek, professor of Criminology at Warsaw University and member of the social movement, The Congress of Women (Kongres Kobiet) tells the V4 Revue: “Those who have money, connections and education go abroad when they need an abortion. But many women do not have such chances, so they have illegal abortions in Poland, or are forced to have children and then deprived of their sons who are taken away by the family. Not to mention that there are many newborns left in baby hatches, wooded areas and trashcans.” 19 Baby hatches, also called “windows of life” in Polish, are run by Caritas, and since they were introduced in Poland in 2006 they have multiplied; so much so, that today there are 55 active baby hatches across the country and 86 unwanted newborns were left there over the last 10 years. 20

Most Polish women, who call the Federation hotline looking into abortions abroad or asking for pre- or post-abortion support, go to Germany, Slovakia, the Netherlands or the UK. Those who choose to have an abortion in Poland can look for places that perform illegal private surgeries. “The Polish abortion underground is expensive, but generally safe,” explains Graff-Osser, stressing how, “the doctors doing abortions in private surgeries are often the same ones who would refuse to do them in public hospitals.” However, Kacpura warns that, “the medical safety of illegal abortions depends on how much you can pay for them and prices for illegal abortions range from € 500 (2,000 PLN) to € 1500 (6,000 PLN) depending on the place.”

The clash between pro-life and pro-choice campaigners 

In the open letter read in churches all around Poland on April 3rd, the Polish bishops called the current abortion act a “compromise set out in law.” 21 That’s why, under the bill proposed by Ordo Iuris, the termination of any pregnancy from the moment of conception would be treated as prenatal murder. As the bill makes clear under Article 1: “Every human being has the inherent right to live from the moment of conception, i.e. the fusion of a female and male gametes. The life and the health of a child from conception are protected by the law.” 22

This is a statement contested by Płatek, who says, “no one ever said that the moment when female and male gametes get together you already have a human being.” She stresses that, “even Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that a human being begins 40 days after conception when it’s male and 80 days after conception when it’s a female. What the Polish Catholic Church is doing will be even more radical than that. They say that a human being is under the protection of the law from the moment of its conception, and this is unheard of.”

Today the ’93 law displeases both the pro-life and pro-choice campaigners. Radical Catholics and many Polish bishops look at the current legislation as something that doesn’t protect fetuses from the moment they’re conceived. The people who are against the new anti-abortion bill, as well as feminists, consider the current legislation too strict and the procedures required for legal abortions long and humiliating. Before the ’93 law came into force “starting in the mid 1980s there was a huge Catholic campaign against abortion, which included showing children pseudo-documentary films on the topic and photos of fetuses in church,” recalls Graff-Osser, who was a teenager at that time.

Then in the early 90s, soon after the fall of communism and before the current law was approved, the struggle between pro-life and pro-choice movements intensified, culminating with conservative Catholic MPs asking for more restrictive abortion bills in 1990 and 1992, and pro-choice MPs creating a movement called Committee for a Referendum on the Criminalization of Abortion, which asked for a national referendum on the matter. 23 Over a million signatures were collected, “but the referendum they asked for was rejected by parliament on the grounds that people shouldn’t decide on matters of life and death,” explains Graff-Osser. The more restrictive bills were also rejected, and when the January 1993 law was approved by a coalition government led by premier Hanna Suchocka, both sides were unhappy.

However, according to Graff-Osser and Płatek, Catholics managed to influence the new legislation more than the pro-choice movements did. “The Church asked the government to restrict the legislation on abortion, otherwise they would have told people in the churches to vote against Poland joining the EU,” stresses Płatek. Even though Poland only joined the EU after a referendum held in June 2003, negotiations to become a member country started as early as September ’89, while the European Union Association Agreement was signed by Warsaw in December 1991. 24 “It was a compromise reached over the lives, the health and the possibility for women to decide for themselves,” Płatek adds.

Today the mutual relationship between the political and the religious authorities in Poland resembles the situation in 1993. On the one hand, the Polish clergy know that, with the new government in charge since October 2015’s parliamentary elections, led by the Catholic-friendly, conservative and nationalist PiS, the moment is opportune to pass new abortion legislation. On the other hand, the new government – many of whose recent reforms are controversial – needs the support of the Catholic Church “so that another compromise may be found,” says Płatek.

And even though Polish and international media gave much coverage to a video 25 showing some women leaving a church in Warsaw on Sunday April 3rd, when the Episcopal letter endorsing the ban on abortion was read, the full story was seldom told: “I would love to believe that that protest was genuine, with actual churchgoers who walked out of the church, but it was actually something organized by a feminist movement,” explains Graff-Osser.

Some controversial aspects of the new bill explained

The current law on abortion was amended only once. In 1996, under the liberal President Alexander Kwaśniewski, pro-choicers managed to get an exception signed by the president, allowing abortion on social grounds. However, the amendment was considered unconstitutional by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in 1997 and, as such, annulled. 26 In the same year, the Act of June 6th 1997, 27 which established a new Polish Penal Code, included several articles related to the criminal charges faced by those who violated the law of 1993.

This explains why the draft of the anti-abortion bill asks for amendments to both the “Act on Family Planning, Protection of the Human Fetus and Conditions for Acceptability of Abortion,” as well as the new Penal Code. On their website, under a paragraph entitled “Misinformation regarding the ‘Stop Abortion’ committee initiative,” 28 Ordo Iuris replies to the criticism they’ve received from Polish and foreign journalists. They start by stressing that, “according to the draft, a woman will never be liable for inadvertently miscarrying her child.”

When looking into the proposed bill, contradictions become apparent. Amended Article 157a.1 says that, “anyone who causes bodily injury or impairment threatening the health or life of a conceived child, is liable to imprisonment for up to three years.” Amended Article 157a.2 adds that, “if the offender (…) acts unintentionally, they are liable to a fine, or the restriction of liberty or imprisonment for up to one year.” However, amended Article 157a.4 specifies that, “if the offence (…) is committed by a mother of a conceived child, the court may apply an extraordinary mitigation of penalty, or even issue an absolute discharge.” While Article 157a.5 confirms this saying, “a mother of a conceived child who commits the offence (…) shall not be subject to any punishment.” Whereas amended articles 157a.4 and 157a.5 seem to absolve pregnant women from liability in cases of abortion or miscarriage, amended article 157a.1 and 157a.2 don’t do that. And this contradiction worries some journalists 29 and pro-choicers who are afraid that the last two amendments could be deleted from the final bill.

Another statement Ordo Iuris makes on their website is that “reports that the civic draft denies parents the right to perform prenatal tests, are false.” However, by comparing the current version of the law to its proposed amendment, it’s easy to spot some key differences. For example, whereas the current law under Article 2a grants “free access to information and prenatal examinations,” the new bill omits that. It replaces that bit with, “material assistance and care to families raising children who are seriously handicapped or suffer from life-threatening illnesses.” Moreover, the draft prepared by Ordo Iuris doesn’t mention prenatal tests at all, meaning that the right to this service, which is granted by current legislation, has been taken off the new bill. As this case makes apparent, the foundation’s statements contradict the text of the bill.

Polarized public opinion on abortion

The importance of having prenatal screenings granted by law cannot be stressed enough. Suffice it to say that 95% 30 of legal abortions registered in Poland in 2014 were performed because prenatal screenings showed pathologies in fetuses. “And today even with prenatal screenings, women have to find a doctor who’s going to tell them all they need to know about the fetus, and not all gynecologists do,” Płatek claims. And the fact that many Polish doctors may conscientiously object to providing this information cannot be ignored.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many Poles are in favor of a stricter law on abortion, or even a total ban. A recent CBOS survey 31 showed that just 53% of interviewees were in favor of abortion in the cases of damaged fetuses, down from 71% in 1992, while 73% of Poles agreed with abortions resulting from pregnancies due to rape, down from 80% in 1992. And this trend doesn’t change when looking at those supporting abortions due to possible risks for the pregnant woman, which decreased from 88% to 80% over the last 24 years.

What would change for Polish women if the bill promoted by Ordo Iuris and Fundacja Pro makes it to parliament in Warsaw, and is approved? “Underground abortions would become more expensive,” says Kacpura. She adds that, “due to the risks of facing criminal charges, many women will not even go to public hospitals if there any complications caused by illegal and dangerous abortions, or for post-abortion care.”

Pro-choice activists, feminists and the tens of thousands of people – including men of all ages – who demonstrated in the Polish streets with their coat hangers over the last three weeks hope to achieve something with their protestation. “Any new solutions should fully take into account the statutory protection of life, health and the dignity of women,” 32 Mr. Kaczyński said after the first wave of protests across the country. Words that could be seen as a partial retreat from his support for a total ban on abortion. Whether they are or aren’t, Płatek makes clear: “Abortion should be legal, safe and rare. People are not running to have an abortion as if they’re heading to a cafe. It’s not only about pregnancy – whoever governs your fertility, governs your life and is deciding for and about you.”

Notes:

  1. Ordo Iuris, “Civic Legislation Initiative: Equal legal protection for children before and after birth,“ April 3, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.en.ordoiuris.pl/civic-legislation-initiative–equal-legal-protection-for-children-before-and-after-birth,3767,i.html.
  2. Stop Aborcji, “Marszałek Sejmu opóźnia rejestrację komitetu „Stop Aborcji“, March 31, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.stopaborcji.pl/author/komitet_stopaborcji/.
  3. Human Rights Watch, “Poland: Reject Blanket Ban on Abortion,“ August 30, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/08/30/poland-reject-blanket-ban-abortion.
  4. Inside-Poland.com, “Parliament narrowly rejects ban on abortion for rape victims in Poland,“ September 12, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://inside-poland.com/t/parliament-narrowly-rejects-ban-on-abortion-for-rape-victims-in-poland/.
  5. Alex Duval Smith, “Polish prime minister favours ban on abortion,“ The Guardian, March 31, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/31/polish-prime-minister-favours-ban-on-abortion.
  6. Will Worley, “Poland considers complete ban on abortion,“ The Independent, April 4, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/poland-ban-abortion-women-speak-out-against-their-governments-plans-for-a-total-ban-on-abortion-a6968601.html.
  7. Jan Cienski, “Poland’s PiS in bed with Catholic Church, backs abortion ban,“ Politico Europe, April 5, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.politico.eu/article/polands-church-state-alliance-to-ban-abortion/.
  8. Pamela Duncan, Molly Redden, Jonathan Watts, “Abortion laws around the world: from bans to easy access,“ The Guardian, January 5, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/05/abortion-laws-around-the-world-from-bans-to-easy-access.
  9. Reproductive Rights, “The Family Planning, Human Embryo Protection and Conditions of Permissibility of Abortion Act of 7 January 1993,“ accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.reproductiverights.org/sites/crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/Polish%20abortion%20act–English%20translation.pdf
  10. Gazeta Wyborcza, “Ministerstwo Zdrowia: W 2014 r. wykonano 977 legalnych aborcji – o 226 więcej niż w 2013 r.,“ April 2, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016 http://wyborcza.pl/1,75478,19855197,ministerstwo-zdrowia-w-2014-r-wykonano-977-legalnych-aborcji.html.
  11. Pamela Duncan, Molly Redden, Jonathan Watts, “Abortion laws around the world: from bans to easy access,“ The Guardian, January 5, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/05/abortion-laws-around-the-world-from-bans-to-easy-access.
  12. Internetowy System Aktow Prawny, “Dz.U. 1956 nr 12 poz. 61,“ accessed on April 15, 2016, http://isap.sejm.gov.pl/DetailsServlet?id=WDU19560120061.
  13. Johnston’s Archive, “Historical abortion statistics, Poland,“ September 15, 2015, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/ab-poland.html.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Radio Poland, “Morning after pill available without prescription,“ 16 April, 2015, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.thenews.pl/1/9/Artykul/203700,Morning-after-pill-available-without-prescription.
  16. Women on Waves, “First flight Abortion drone,“ accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.womenonwaves.org/en/page/5832/first-flight-abortion-drone.
  17. Krystyna Kacpura, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, April 12th, 2016.
  18. The Polish Association for the Protection of Human Life, “The abortion underground in Poland: myths and facts,“ accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.pro-life.pl/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/the-abortion-underground-in-poland-myths-and-facts.pdf 
  19. Monika Płatek, all further quotes taken from a phone interview with the author, April 6th, 2016.
  20. Caritas Polska, “Okno Życia w Polsce,“ October 30, 2015, accessed on April 15th, 2016, http://www.caritas.pl/okna-zycia-w-polsce/.
  21. Vatican Radio, “Rights of unborn children advance in Poland, supported by bishops and PM,“ April 2, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2016/04/02/poland_pushes_to_end_abortion/1219893.
  22. Ordo Iuris, “Civic Legislation Initiative: Equal legal protection for children before and after birth,“ April 3, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.en.ordoiuris.pl/civic-legislation-initiative–equal-legal-protection-for-children-before-and-after-birth,3767,i.html.
  23. Wanda Nowicka, “The struggle for abortion rights in Poland,“ Sexuality Policy Watch, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.sxpolitics.org/frontlines/book/pdf/capitulo5_poland.pdf.
  24. European Commission, “Press Release Database,” accessed on April 15, 2016, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-96-6_en.htm.
  25. Gazeta Wyborza, “Komentarze po wyjściu kobiet z kościoła św. Anny w trakcie czytania listu Episkopatu,“ April 3, 2016, accessed on April 15th, 2016, http://wyborcza.pl/10,82983,19860928,komentarze-po-wyjsciu-kobiet-z-kosciola-sw-anny-w-trakcie-czytania.html.
  26. Wanda Nowicka, “The struggle for abortion rights in Poland,“ Sexuality Policy Watch, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.sxpolitics.org/frontlines/book/pdf/capitulo5_poland.pdf.
  27. International Money Laundering Information Network, “Act of 6 June 1997, The Penal Code,“ accessed on April 15, 2016, https://www.imolin.org/doc/amlid/Poland_Penal_Code1.pdf.
  28. Ordo Iuris, “Civic Legislation Initiative: Equal legal protection for children before and after birth,“ April 3, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.en.ordoiuris.pl/civic-legislation-initiative–equal-legal-protection-for-children-before-and-after-birth,3767,i.html.
  29. Maciej Kisilowski, “Poland aborts freedom,“ Project Syndicate, April 11, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/poland-right-wing-abortion-law-by-maciej-kisilowski-2016-04?referrer=/r0yTs5DQCX
  30. Gazeta Wyborcza, “Ministerstwo Zdrowia: W 2014 r. wykonano 977 legalnych aborcji – o 226 więcej niż w 2013 r.,“ April 2, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016 http://wyborcza.pl/1,75478,19855197,ministerstwo-zdrowia-w-2014-r-wykonano-977-legalnych-aborcji.html.
  31. Gazeta.pl, “Nie zakazywać aborcji – tego chce większość z nas. Ale w dwóch przypadkach bardzo zmieniliśmy zdanie,“ April 2, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/1,114871,19855686,nie-zaostrzac-aborcji-tego-chce-wiekszosc-z-nas-ale-w-dwoch.html & http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2005/K_037_05.PDF.
  32. Henry Foy, “Protests prompt Poland to retreat on plans to ban abortion,“ Financial Times, April 8, 2016, accessed on April 15, 2016, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/3d5315da-fce6-11e5-b5f5-070dca6d0a0d.html#axzz45sj8gHmJ.
Lorenzo Berardi

Lorenzo Berardi

is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw. He is a contributor for Lettera43, The Varsovian, Polonicult and former correspondent of Lettera43 from the UK.