Poland’s current abortion rights hang by a thread. If legalized, the judgment in October 2020 would make illegal 98% of currently legal abortions provided in Poland. Poland already has some of the tightest abortion restrictions in Europe, which forces thousands to travel abroad for terminations, mainly to neighboring Germany and Slovakia. The financial fallout and travel restrictions caused by COVID-19, along with the newly proposed legislation in Poland, is likely to result in an increase in pressure and responsibility on these countries to support Polish women.
Poland in Protest
On October 22nd 2020, huge protests began erupting across Poland after a Constitutional Tribunal hearing ruled that abortions are unconstitutional for foetal defects which are severe and irreversible, or incurable illnesses which threaten the foetus’ life.
According to supporters, the October judgment is meant to ensure that abortion rights align with Article 38 of the Constitution which states, “The Republic of Poland shall ensure the legal protection of the life of every human being.” The judgment ruled that abortion will only be allowed in cases of incest, rape, or threats to the life of the pregnant woman.
Protests continue against the October judgment, despite lockdown measures and rising COVID-19 cases. All over Poland, red lightning bolts have appeared. This is a symbol of the Women’s Strike movement (Strajk Kobiet) which is leading the protests. The movement has its origins in the 2016 Black Protests (Czarny Protest) in Poland which opposed legislation to completely outlaw abortion. Notes from Poland, the leading independent English language news source in Poland, reported that around 70% of Poles opposed the October judgment.
The judgment is zealously supported by the ruling Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) who endorse traditional Catholic values and, who currently have a political monopoly and a majority in the Constitutional Court.
In response to the protests, the judgment has not been published and is therefore not yet legal. However, this has not allayed concerns. Academics and legal experts expressed outrage because the delayed publication violates “a legal provision that constitutional court rulings be published” immediately, noted Monika Scislowska, an Associated Press journalist.
Human rights groups have emphasized that the October judgment contradicts the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Poland has ratified, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Furthermore, on October 22nd, Poland also signed the highly controversial Geneva Consensus Declaration, which aims to convince the UN “that there is no international right to abortion”.
What led to the October 2020 judgment?
Catholicism is an integral part of Polish national identity. The Polish Catholic Church is one of the country’s leading institutions, with 87% of the population identifying as Catholic. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church was an emblem of resistance to foreign ruling powers. Whilst it was suppressed under communism (and enforced secularism), as communist rule collapsed, its influence returned. In the 1990s, the Catholic Church reinforced a circulating belief that the communist Abortion Act “was a shameful relic […] and symbol of the Soviet domination”; if the Act remained, Poland could not be free of its communist legacy.
The 1993 Family Planning Act limited abortion in Poland. This generated the phenomenon of Abortion Tourism (travelling abroad for an abortion). It became a necessity for Poles, with the majority travelling to Germany and Slovakia to have the procedure.
In recent years, rising numbers of doctors and hospitals in Poland refuse to offer legal abortions, as they deem themselves “conscientious objectors”, according to Sydney Calkin, a volunteer with the charity, Abortion Support Network. This moral objection meant that entire regions of Poland did not provide terminations. In 2019, only 1,110 legal pregnancy terminations took place in Poland; almost 98% were performed for foetal abnormalities or defects.
Poles who need terminations abroad are often only able to access this because of NGOs and charities set up specifically to help them. The charities, such as the Abortion Support Network, Ciocia Basia, Abortion Dream Team, and Kobiety w Sieci, offer vital advice, funding, and support. The majority of funding comes from individual donations, as opposed to organizations and governments, thus the charities have limited financial resources to enact their support.
The October judgment has come alongside continued defunding of women’s rights groups, a rejection of comprehensive sex education, and restricted access to contraception, in line with the country’s traditional Catholic values.
The Price of Help
Poland’s abortion policy has meant that citizens have to adapt. Two alternatives exist: either travel abroad or stay in Poland and seek an illegal termination. In 2020, UN experts estimate that around 100,000 Poles seek abortions annually.
Being forced to travel abroad for a termination is a costly process, financially and psychologically. The terminations are expensive. In 2010, the cost of an abortion in Germany was between 400-600 euro, according to Reuters UK. By 2020, it is estimated to cost around 470 euro. The costs are similar in Slovakia at around 400 euro. These prices exclude travelling to and staying in the countries for the procedure.
Research published in February 2020 by Adriana Sas, an expert on the Polish market, estimated that in 2018 the average monthly salary for Polish women was around 1000 euro (4,543 polish złoty), with average hourly salaries, at 11 euro, ranking significantly below the EU average of 28 euro. The cost of an abortion, therefore, is a substantial sum for women, and their families, to pay.
Nonetheless, with limited options to have the procedure at home, thousands of Polish women are forced to travel to Germany and Slovakia every year. In 2016, reports by Polish news sites suggested that Polish women accounted for 80% of abortion procedures in Slovak clinics.
The psychological effect of being forced abroad for the procedure is incalculable, as several women’s testimonies over the years have highlighted. Many will initially attempt to have the procedure in Poland. However, hospitals can deny women abortions, on conscientious grounds or due to fear of reprisals under Polish law. Equally, women have reported hostility and prejudice due to the prevailing stigmatization around the procedure. Since the subject is such a taboo, women either refuse to speak about the experience or feel they cannot talk about it with either loved ones or professionals.
The high cost of the procedure means that many women have to travel abroad alone. Others travel alone in an effort to keep the procedure secret. A volunteer at Ciocia Basia, a Berlin-based group that helps Poles access abortions, stated that around 50% of Polish women arrive at the center alone and have not informed anyone about their imminent procedure. The charities and groups continue to try and lessen the burden of abortions abroad through financial aid, translators, and assisting with accommodation and appointments. However, with inadequate resources, they cannot help everyone.
Since the abortion ruling in October 2020, volunteers in German and Slovak abortion clinics and help centres have reported that calls from Polish women have soared. Ciocia Basia recorded a threefold increase in calls, as women and their families are traumatized by the consequences of this new judgment.
In Slovakia and Germany, abortion is only legal until 12 weeks after conception. After this, they may only be provided for medical reasons. Therefore, some Poles must travel further afield if they need or cannot get the procedure before 12 weeks. Those with more resources tend to travel west to specific EU countries, chiefly the Netherlands, the UK, and Spain, where abortions later into the pregnancy are legally permitted. In the UK in 2020 the procedure costs around 3,300 euro, including travel.
Even though Germany and Slovakia provide the most support for Poles seeking an abortion abroad, these countries have ongoing challenges within their own borders. These internal challenges have repercussions for Poles who have been forced to rely upon their neighbors.
Slovakia, in September 2020, dealt with challenges to its abortion provisions. Right-wing, conservative MPs attempted to restrict access to abortions, by increasing the waiting period before the procedure and requiring an extra doctor to approve the termination. The bill failed by one vote.
Equally, Germany has issues with abortion policy. Whilst it is possible to have the procedure until 12 weeks, the procedure is technically illegal under the German Constitution and doctors are neither allowed to ‘advertise’ nor give information about terminations under paragraph 219a. This means that even for German citizens there are challenges to finding information about the procedure.
Travelling abroad is difficult now, and financial pressure in Poland due to the pandemic is tangible. This financial pressure may affect the ability of the charities to help Poles, especially if there is a new influx in people needing assistance. Human Rights Watch has condemned the October judgment, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Europe, accusing Poland of using the pandemic “as an excuse to undermine women’s rights”.
Afflicted in Every Way
The judgment has re-emphasized to Poles how fragile women’s rights are in their country. Thousands of people across the world have shown solidarity with the protestors. However, until the October judgment is officially rejected, legal abortions will become less and less accessible in Poland.
Banning abortion will not stop the procedure from taking place. It will compel more Poles to travel abroad for the procedure. The services provided in Slovakia and Germany are already dealing with record numbers of women and families needing help. The October judgment, if legislated, will force these countries to bear an even larger responsibility to ensure that Polish women are given assistance.
The consequence of the October judgment amid COVID-19, when travel abroad is restricted, will mean that Poles who are unable to travel for terminations, will find alternatives. It will likely push more women towards covert abortions.
This reality will be felt most keenly by those already in precarious financial, social, and psychological states. The very people who deserve inclusive human rights in their own nation.