Abortion law in Poland
Women’s organisations were raided after protests against abortion laws
In the first days of October 2017, Polish women marched to protest against the government and the restrictive abortion law. Soon after these demonstrations, raids targeting Women’s Rights Centre and Baba, two organisations that help women who experience domestic violence, took place in Warsaw, Gdańsk, Łódź and Zielona Góra.
In an article for the Guardian, Amnesty International’s researcher on Poland Barbora Cernusakova, said she was ‘very worried’ about these police raids. She added that even though these happened in the context of an investigation against former staff of the Ministry of Justice, the two organisations and the women they help will ‘suffer the consequences’. Head of Baba, Anita Kucharska-Dziedzic, was concerned about the loss of files, which, she believes, will negatively affect the work of the organisations, and the requisition of private and sensitive information, which is cause for concern.
Marta Lempart, activist and leader of the Polish Women’s Strike, described the raids as an intimidation of the women’s groups that fight for the revision of the abortion law. ‘We don’t have offices that can be violated with the pretext of financial nature, so they prefer targeting and paralysing these organisations.’ For Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, the raids ‘amount to harassment of women’s rights organisations’.
Polish women have fought for many years for their reproductive rights. On 3 October 2016 about 100,000 women struck to decry the abortion ban proposed by the right-wing Law and Justice Party. The bill aimed at making abortion illegal in all circumstances and planned to extend the jail time up to five years for doctors who decide to perform abortion, which would have been illegal even for survivors of rape or incest. The only exception included in the bill was the ‘unintended’ death of a foetus while saving a woman’s life. Women therefore marched wearing black clothes as a sign of mourning for their reproductive rights, hence the name ‘Black Protests’. Inspired by the strike in Iceland in the 1970s, the women in Poland did not go to work nor attended school and refused to do domestic chores.
After the mass protests, the Polish parliament rejected the abortion ban by 352 votes to 58. However, the Polish legislation remains one of the most restrictive in Europe. Currently, abortion is legal only in case of a medical risk, if the foetus is severely deformed, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. After 12 weeks, abortion is illegal except in the case in which pregnancy would endanger the life or health of the pregnant woman and it must be carried out in a hospital or clinic with the consent of the pregnant woman or her parents or guardian if she is a minor.
Concerns about the law have been expressed by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The Committee stressed the high prevalence of illegal abortions due to the restrictive legal requirements contained in the 1993 Act. In line with the observations of the Committee, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks – after a visit in 2016 – stated that ‘Poland has one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe.’ Furthermore, since 2007, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned Poland in three judgements concerning access to abortion, each relating to situations in which a legal abortion could have been possible under Polish law.
The UN Committee have also highlighted the extensive use – ‘or abuse’ – by medical personnel of the conscientious objection clause. As for the normative on abortion in Italy, the ‘conscience clause’ can be invoked by doctors and paramedical personnel who are opposed to abortion on moral or religious grounds and who can, for those reasons, refuse to perform or assist in the performance of an abortion. In Poland, conscience clause is widely invoked and even applied by health institutions as a whole. Even reproductive health services are not easily accessible; the emergency contraception is sold only under prescription, which makes it difficult for women and girls to obtain it because of the short time limit and the doctors’ frequent refusal to prescribe it.
The process to obtain the morning-after pill has been defined as ‘a sexual counter-revolution’ by the Dutch liberal MEP, Sophie in’t Veld, who considered it to be in violation of European values. Director of Amnesty International in Poland Draginja Nadaždin has warned that the legislation will have severe effects on women and girls who live in rural areas, with a catastrophic impact on rape survivors.
Women and girls in Poland have limited access to information. With regard to sexual education, the information provided is often different from scientific explanations, since the Catholic doctrine heavily influences educators and textbooks, and it is not uncommon to find comments such as ‘masturbation causes infertility’ or ‘contraception is a denial of a true love’. This misinformation has had strong consequences on young people and the general understanding not only of abortion but also of women’s rights. Consequently, women are often stereotyped and victims of a patriarchal idea of family.
Numerous NGOs estimate that there are about 150,000 illegal terminations in Poland every year, a number much higher than the legal abortions, which are between 1000 and 2000. The exact number of illegal procedures cannot be ascertained and it is impossible to estimate how many women are injured or even killed as a result of unsafe terminations, where safety and quality usually depend on the economic situation of women. Despite the repeated appeals issued by a number of human rights organisations and bodies, Polish authorities have never investigated the scope, causes and impact these illegal procedures have on women’s life and health.
Overall, the limited access to reproductive health care; the criminalisation of individuals for carrying out abortions outside the restrictive limits of the law; and the lack of an effective remedy to challenge decisions of doctors in violation of women’s right to access reproductive health services available within the law, have altogether impeded the effectiveness of women’s rights. In particular, they face discrimination, and their rights to life, to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, and to private life are neither respected, protected nor fulfilled by the state.
Last year's Black Protests and the subsequent rejection of the abortion ban marked a historical victory for many women who have fought – and continue to fight – for their rights. The recent police investigations will have negative consequences on the organisations and on those who benefit from their work, but Polish women have proven to be strong, organised and passionate. Human rights organisations and civil society have a different kind of power compared to the powers of the state, and this is the result of years of networking and raising awareness, which cannot be erased or undermined by requisitions or loss of files in a computer. That is the reason why the growing solidarity amongst women, the positive exchange of communication and information within the country, and also across Europe, is essential to create the solid basis to fight for Polish women’s rights.
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