Posted on January 27 2021
A LEGAL ABORTION IN POLAND IS DAMN NEAR IMPOSSIBLE TO GET. IN PRACTICE IT TAKES WEEKS, SOMETIMES MONTHS, FOR A WOMAN TO BE ABLE TO OBTAIN A LEGAL ABORTION, DUE TO MANY DOCTORS BEING ABLE TO REFUSE TO PERFORM ONE DUE TO BEING "CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS", CAUSING THEIR PATIENT TO HAVE TO SEEK ONE ELSEWHERE.
By Jax Cassidy
I’m sure you’ve seen the latest cover of Vogue Poland floating around on Instagram, featuring Anja Rubik showing clear support for the pro-choice movement in Poland. It might seem like a simple gesture but without understanding the extreme pro-life sentiments that are so tightly woven into Polish politics, it would be easy to take this Vogue cover for granted and wonder why it’s been praised across social media platforms.
With the exception of roughly three decades of Polish history, abortion access has always been incredibly restricted in the staunchly Roman Catholic country. On October 22, 2020, we saw a ruling made by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal that would make access to legal abortion nearly impossible to attain, sparking protests all over Poland. This is actually not the first time we’ve seen protests in favor of reproductive healthcare in Poland but the demonstrations over the most recent ruling have been the biggest since the fall of communism in the country. Much like with the BLM gatherings here in the states, it seems that what we’re witnessing in Poland isn’t just protesting but a revolution.
It's not just the near-total ban on abortion that’s had Polish citizens taking to the streets over the last month or so. Many in Poland would say that this uprising is an inevitable result of decades of Polish women being excluded from positions of power as well as being denied reproductive freedom. Although women in Poland have managed to gain economic & social power over the years- Poland reportedly has one of the lowest gender wage gaps among countries recorded by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and more women than men in Poland actually earn university degrees- it’s obviously understandable that women and young people in Poland don’t feel like embracing a systemically patriarchal power structure that’s been in place since Poland broke away from Communism and embraced the Catholic church. In truth, the abortion laws in Poland, and inherent fluctuating state of the livelihood of women and girls in Poland are really just the tip of the iceberg. But there’s really no topic that’s sparked as much contention in Poland as a woman’s right to choose. To put it plainly, women in Poland had more reproductive freedom under Communist rule than they have in the last 30 years.
Prior to the ruling on Oct. 22, abortion was legal in Poland under three specific circumstances: If the pregnancy was the result of a criminal act (rape or incest, but it’s worth noting that there are right-wing activists and politicians in Poland who are actively fighting to make abortion unattainable even in those instances), if the pregnancy endangers the health or life of the mother, and when there are fetal defects detected.
Julia Przylebska, the president of the constitutional tribunal, ruled that terminating a pregnancy due to fetal abnormalities did not align with the Polish constitution, which guarantees a right to life. (This is widely interpreted as a fetus having this right at the moment of conception.) She also said that legal abortions performed under these circumstances were “eugenic practices with regard to an unborn child, thus denying it the respect and protection of human dignity”, and called abortion based on the health of a fetus “a directly forbidden form of discrimination”.
This decision by the tribunal can’t be appealed, and there’s a lot to unpack here when it comes to how this ruling will effect a country where it’s already exceedingly difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion.
Firstly, even legal abortion in Poland is damn near impossible to get. According to Karolina Wieckiewicz, a lawyer & activist for the group Abortion Without Borders, “In practice it takes weeks, sometimes months,” for a woman to be able to obtain a legal abortion, due to many doctors being able to refuse to perform one due to being “conscientious objectors”, causing their patient to have to seek one elsewhere.
Second, it’s important to clarify what percentage of abortions in Poland are performed under the circumstances of fetal abnormalities being present. In Poland, they keep a record of how many legal abortions are performed each year. It’s remained at a stable amount of 1,000-2,000 procedures each year. In 2019, there were 1,110 legal abortions performed. Of those recorded, 1,074 of those abortions were performed due to detection of severe or irreversible fetal impairment. It’s estimated that each year, only roughly 2% of legal abortions performed in Poland are due to rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life. Comparatively, illegal abortions in Poland are estimated at anywhere between 10,000 and 200,000, depending on your source. (Since these obviously aren’t officially recorded, it’s difficult to know for sure, and the data varies widely.) And that’s not including abortions that are sought out abroad.
In the words of Wieckiewicz, “Some people decide to risk the battle in Poland, others look for alternatives.” In a 2010 study, it was estimated that among the pregnancy terminations performed on Polish women each year, 10-15% were performed abroad, in countries such as Germany, Slovakia, Austria, and the UK, among others.
And it’s worth mentioning that illegal abortions performed in Poland and abortions that are sought abroad are not accessible to everyone. Dunja Mijatovic took to Twitter to call this ruling a “sad day for women’s rights” and also wrote “Today’s ruling of the Constitutional Court means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford & even greater ordeal for all others.”
These figures are based on the effect of Poland’s current abortion laws. If these laws are tightened even further by the latest ruling, those numbers will undoubtedly swell beyond belief. Not to mention the number of women who will be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and give birth to terminally ill children.
So, knowing all that, and understanding that public opinion polls in the country have shown that more Polish folks approve of the current laws or are favoring making them more liberal, it makes sense that thousands of women and allies would be taking to the streets to fight for the ruling to be walked back. Protesters have been gathering every few days, braving police brutality, tear gas, and COVID-19 to make clear their disapproval of right-wing figureheads utilizing the current pandemic as a means to solidify their power over the bodily autonomy of anyone who can get pregnant.
Many have critiqued the Polish government for seizing this opportunity to attack women’s rights. Truthfully, they’ve never had a better window of opportunity than now, with the pandemic raging on and lockdowns in place, as well as their next election being three years away.
Even more infuriatingly, this ruling is essentially the direct outcome of an anti-choice petition gaining popularity enough for PiS (Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party, which is widely believed to have been the destruction of the constitutional tribunal as it’s meant to function) to back it and bring it to constitutional court. The president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, who is allied with PiS, welcomed the ruling and has said that if the legislation is approved then he would draft it into law. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s most powerful politician- who happens to be the head of PiS- has vowed multiple times to restrict abortion access.
The good news is that we’ve seen previous PiS attempts to do so be effectively stricken down by protests before. And, with the most recent demonstrations being as significantly impactful as they have, we’ve already heard hints that the constitutional tribunal may reverse their decision. However, at this time, the situation remains uncertain. The whole world should be watching Poland right now, because one way or another, a reckoning is coming. This decision and its aftermath could reshape Polish governance- and the hold of Catholicism therein- as we know it, for better or worse. But it’s not just Poland we should keep an eye on.
According to Hillary Margolis, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Ensuring women’s human rights, including their reproductive rights, is essential to upholding EU values. Poland’s flagrant disregard for these values is dangerous not only for women and girls in Poland, but throughout Europe.” And, in the words of Barbara Nowacka, “The European Union does not want to get involved.”
That seems like a major cause for concern.
What we’re seeing in Poland now could not only mean significant change for a country with some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, but could also signal future shifts throughout the rest of the EU as well.
Jax is a freelance writer and content creator who strives to deconstruct tired ideals of beauty and create a safe and supportive space for all in her little pocket of the internet. She’s passionate about writing and teaching, as well as being an advocate for mental health awareness (being someone who struggles with depression and anxiety herself) and equality for all. You can find her on Instagram.