Proposed Bill Deepens the Rift in Poland’s Abortion Debate

A proposal to further tighten the already stringent restrictions on abortion has ignited the women’s rights movement in Poland and created deep divisions within the country.

Written by Nina Teggarty Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Protesters raise hangers, symbolizing illegal abortion, and shout slogans against a possible tightening of Poland's abortion law, already one of the most restrictive in Europe, in Warsaw, Poland, April 3, 2016. AP/Alik Keplicz

Thirty-year-old Aleksandra had long been told by doctors that she could not conceive naturally. So when she became pregnant last year, it was a “huge surprise” that came at a “bad time.” Aleksandra soon discovered that she could not terminate the pregnancy in Poland. Instead she realized that she would “have to run away from my own country.”

Abortion has been illegal in Poland since 1993, and it is only permitted in three instances: if the mother’s life is at risk, if the fetus is impaired, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. It is one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and forces more than 100,000 Polish women to travel abroad for a legal termination every year, according to the Federation for Women and Family Planning. Now a group of lawyers has proposed a bill that would further limit the exemptions for abortion, triggering protests against what many see as the dangerous evolution of an already discriminatory law.

To terminate her pregnancy, Aleksandra (who asked that only her first name be used) chose a clinic in Slovakia. Although it was close to the Polish border, she had to travel 620 miles (1,000km) and the trip took six days. “I was really relieved I had the option, but it struck me after I got back to Poland, the whole journey and everything, it was a pain: going to the south of Poland, hopping in the cab, staying in the hotel. This is the kind of situation where you really want to be in your own bed,” she says.

While in the clinic, she shared a room with another Polish woman who was there with her husband, having her second termination. “Having three kids already, they just decided they couldn’t afford to have another one, simple as that,” says Aleksandra.

With so many women traveling outside of Poland for a termination, and a thriving black market in abortion pills within the country, the current ban isn’t working, says Krystyna Kacpura, executive director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning. “This law doesn’t work in practice,” she says. “On paper, it permits abortion for three reasons, but in practice it’s a miracle to get access to legal abortion.”

And now women’s rights groups are worried that the current abortion bill, although flawed, could soon be superseded by an even more oppressive law.

A new “citizens’ bill,” drafted by lawyers from the Ordu Iuris legal institute and supported by pro-life groups, would impose a prison sentence of up to three years on anyone who performs an abortion. Under the proposed bill, women could only have a termination if their life was at risk – at the moment, almost 90 percent of the nearly 1,000 abortions carried out in Poland every year are due to fetal abnormality. The bill collected over 100,000 signatures, the requisite number needed before it can be considered by the Sejm (Polish parliament).

“About 1,000 children are legally killed in Poland [each year],” says Mariusz Dzierzawski of the Pro-Life Foundation (Fundacji pro-prawo do zycia), who helped collect the signatures. “We have to stop it … If abortion is legal, mothers are frequently under pressure from the father of the child, or other people, to perform abortion.”

Dzierzawski’s stance has gained widespread support in Poland, where nearly 90 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. The proposed anti-abortion bill also has the backing of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS). Since gaining power in October, the PiS has introduced a raft of proposals that would limit reproductive rights, such as stopping state funding for in-vitro fertilization in public hospitals and banning prescription-free emergency contraception. “They [the PiS] just want to push women into the middle ages,” says Kacpura.

The ruling party’s proposals to further restrict reproductive rights in the country, along with the threat of an all-out abortion ban, have ignited the feminist movement in Poland. A coalition of women’s organizations known as Save the Women (Ratujmy Kobiety) launched its own citizens’ bill, calling for the liberalization of abortion and improved sex education in schools. Their bill also gained the 100,000 signatures necessary to get it read in parliament.

Another group, Girls for Girls (Dziewuchy Dziewuchom), recently sprang up online as a forum to discuss women’s rights. It “sparked remarkable engagement, attracting more than 100,000 Facebook followers in just a few days,” says cofounder Barbara Baran. “The scale and structure of this movement is unprecedented in the history of Polish feminism.”

Feminist activism has also spilled on to the nation’s streets. In recent months, tens of thousands of pro-choice supporters have turned out to protest against the anti-abortion bill. Many demonstrators brandish coat hangers, which have become a symbol for the risky backstreet abortions that women without access to safe abortion often turn to as a last resort.

Campaigners will march again on parliament this weekend. “This is really something that people are mad about,” says Monika Platek, a professor of criminology and gender studies. “This is a moment where women who were never politically active before have realized, ‘This is my life, this is the life of my daughter, this is the life of my sister.’ We are fed up.”

The anti-abortion citizens’ bill and the bill proposed by Save the Women have been tabled by the Polish government. Both will be considered next week.

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