Poles count the cost of severe abortion restrictions

Even before Poland practically banned abortion, Zofia considered moving abroad. But the virtual ban that took effect earlier this year helped her make up her mind: this fall she plans to move to Prague in the Czech Republic.

“I feel better there, more free, and being a woman there doesn’t make me feel weaker or worse,” she said. “I love my life in Warsaw. But when the [abortion ban was mooted], I thought, I don’t want to live here anymore. . . And I don’t want my kids to live here.

The 31-year-old artist is one of thousands of Polish women outraged by the country’s toughening of abortion laws which, even before the overhaul, were among the strictest in the EU. Their anger is centered on a decision by the Constitutional Court in October last year, which ruled that a 1993 law allowing abortions in cases of severe fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.

The decision went into effect in January, leaving only two grounds for abortion in Poland: a threat to the mother’s health or whether the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. These cases represented only 2.4% of the 1,100 legal abortions in Poland in 2019.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets when the decision was announced in October, and activists called for another round of protests on International Women’s Day on Monday. Polls suggest that a majority of Poles support some form of liberalization.

Anti-abortion activists, often guided by their religion in what remains one of the strongest in Europe Catholic countries, say the change was necessary to protect the rights of unborn children.

“An unborn child is a separate person who has his own body and his own rights. A child must not be deprived of the basic right of every human being – the right to life, ”wrote Kaja Godek, one of Poland’s most prominent anti-abortion activists, last month.

A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish abortion opponents are led by religion in one of Europe’s most Catholic countries © Omar Marques / Getty Images

But activists say the move will force women to give birth to babies with abnormalities so severe that they have no chance of surviving. They also say the government has done too little to help families of children born with disabilities, who receive only limited support.

“I am terrified because for me as a woman of childbearing age it means that getting pregnant in Poland has become dangerous. And I am afraid for my sister, for my colleagues and friends, for my relatives and for many other women whom I meet every day as clients ”, declared Kamila Ferenc, lawyer for the Federation for Women and Women. family planning, a women’s rights group. .

“They will be in a horrible position. . . they have lost the possibility to decide freely for themselves, because it is not so easy to have an abortion outside the system. “

In the past, Polish women who could afford it could have abortions in neighboring countries with more liberal laws, such as the Czech Republic or Slovakia. But with the pandemic limiting travel, experts say women will likely turn to the internet to buy drugs abroad that would allow them to perform abortions at home. Women are not prosecuted for self-administered abortions performed before the 22nd week of pregnancy.

“Previously, illegal abortions were done through surgical procedures by doctors and providers. Then abortion tourism increased in the early 2000s after Poland joined the EU. Now we are seeing an increase in self-administered abortions, which can be less of a financial and emotional burden, ”said Maria Lewandowska, reproductive health researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Justyna Wydrzynska, of the Avortion Dream Team, a group that helps women who want to terminate their pregnancies, said that since the rules on abortion were tightened in January, the organization has received three times the normal number of calls from women seeking help.

“We get around 600 to 700 phone calls per month. A hundred of them must go abroad [for an abortion], And for the rest,. . . most of them are people who need pills, help taking pills or post-abortion care, ”she said.

“These are often human tragedies. Some people approach it in a task-oriented way, others very emotionally. Sometimes it is very difficult.

Despite huge protests last year, women’s rights groups recognize that as long as Poland’s conservative Nationalist Law and Justice Party remains in power, the prospect of loosening laws is minimal. But they hope that in the long run, the debate sparked by the decision will lead to greater support for liberalization.

“The factual situation of pregnant women is worse. But on the other hand, I think we are now on a better way to change the situation than when [the previous government led by the centre-right] The civic platform prevailed and everyone thought everything was fine, ”Ferenc said.

“There is more courage in society to talk about abortion. People educate and educate each other. I think we now have more solidarity and strength in society to fight for reproductive rights. ”

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