Reporters: Shuai Hao, Joasia Popowicz, Francesca Regalado

Opening a pack of medicine for joint-pain, Julia Zareba, a student from northeast Poland, took 12 pills out and swallowed them all at once. Desperate for them to work, she didn’t think of possible side effects. After four hours, she started bleeding and guessed the medicine must have taken effect.

Zareba, who had never once troubled herself with political issues, had recently discovered that she was pregnant. Her mother, who had also used Arthrotec before, told her its active ingredient, misoprostol, causes miscarriage. If everything went well, Zareba would have no need to spend hundreds of euros for an abortion abroad.

The 17-year old wrote a thread about safe home-based abortion that got nearly 3,000 likes on Twitter. “I knew that there are women like me who would prefer to self-abort,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that they could do it in the safest possible manner.”

Not all the women who want abortions in Poland get as much help as Zareba. Due to some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, abortion is legal only in cases of incest, rape, irreparable foetal disability and when the life of the mother is threatened. Lawmakers are currently attempting to pass even stricter laws, which will make it harder for Polish women, especially low-income ones, to seek abortions.

poland abortion

Clergical influence

Until 1989, abortion had been legal in formerly communist Poland. As the government switched to democratic rule, the Catholic Church, which had been instrumental in throwing off communism, consolidated its power in the political system. This provided the backdrop for Poland’s current abortion law, passed in 1993.

After the conservative Law and Justice party took power in 2015, with support of the church, it put forward a bill which outlawed all abortions and restricted the selling of morning-after pills, leading to crowds of up to 150,000 people taking to the streets in protest. The bill failed to pass through the Sejm, or parliament, but lawmakers have not been discouraged, proposing a milder bill in March 2018, which would stop short over a total ban, but would still outlaw abortion in most cases, even when a foetus is disabled.

This bill has also failed to pass thus far, and appears to have been kicked into the long grass until Polish parliamentary elections later this year, but a strong showing for the Law and Justice Party could see it return.

“It angers me the most that they want to prohibit abortion even when the child is ill, when it’s known for certain that the child will be severely ill or disabled,” said Iza Mossakowska, 28, a Polish credit analyst who would need to spend all her savings for an abortion. “It’s terrible. It’s suffering for both the woman and child.”

poland abortion
Warsaw’s Palace of Culture, a hangover from the communist period when abortions were legal. 129,000 abortions took place in Poland in 1988, compared to around 1000 today, according to official figures.

Making the case for a right to life

But many others support the law, indeed the government can claim to be representing the majority view. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017 showed that 51 percent of Poles thought abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, which outnumbers those who held the opposite opinion (41 percent).

Whilst there is a range of views on when exactly abortion should be illegal, some make the case to outlaw it even in cases of rape. “I am for a complete ban on abortion, I think that a child should not be responsible for trespasses committed by their own biological father,” says Daniel Włudarczak, 20, an electronics apprentice who often attends pro-life activities. “If the mother did not want to raise such a child, she can give it to, for example, Window of Life (a charity takes care of abandoned children).”

Backstreet abortions

The increasing restrictions on abortion have not eliminated demand but have instead resulted in a booming black market. According to the World Health Organization, only 1044 abortions were reported in Poland in 2015. However, the number of illegal terminations – including abortion in underground clinics; traveling abroad for operations; and taking smuggled abortion pills – are difficult to estimate. “For years the number circulated has been between 70,000 and 200,000. But there are no reliable statistics,” said Agnieszka Graff, a Polish feminist scholar and activist.

In many countries, hospitals are a common place to get abortions, but not for Polish women. Although the expenses for legal abortion are included in public health insurance, some gynaecologists are not willing to perform the surgery. Based on the estimation of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a pro-choice organisation, only 10 percent of hospitals perform legal abortions. “Doctors overstep their rights by, for example, failing to report the state of the foetus or not providing information to the patient about hospitals where legal abortions are performed,” according to an article written by Julia Kubisa, assistant professor at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw.

“Abortion tourism”

Middle-class women travel abroad to get cheap and safe abortion surgeries. The costs for terminations are about $450 in the Czech Republic and $550 in Germany, but illegal operations in Poland cost $800. “Accompanying them is a very important aspect because they’re stressed. They come without any relatives. Sometimes their relatives don’t know they are coming. There’s a stigma and loneliness,” said Zuzanna Dziuban, a worker of Ciocia Basia, an activist group in Berlin that helps organize safe abortions.

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Cheap abortions are available in many of the countries neighbouring Poland.

Traveling abroad might not be a suitable choice for low-income women, because they need to pay for travel, hotels, and babysitters if having children. According to the Ministry of Labor, the minimum wage in 2018 in Poland was 2,100 zlotys ($550), making a trip to Germany or the Czech Republic equivalent to a month’s wages.

Flouting EU law

Emergency contraceptive pills, meanwhile, are hard to get in pharmacies. “The EU decided that morning-after pills are supposed to be sold without restriction,” said Katarzyna Wojnicka, a post-doctor researcher at the Center for European Research, University of Gothenburg. “But in 2016, the government decided to go against the EU.” Now, women need a prescription from doctors for morning-after pills.

“Women more and more often buy pills on the internet, not always from trusted sources,” said Liliana Religa, communications and promotions coordinator of the Federation for Women and Family Planning. She added that women pay about $113 for abortion pills secretly transported from other countries, which, though expensive, is substantially less than the cost of illegal operations.

Pro-life organisations in Poland are against circulation of abortion drugs. “Polish criminal activity of the well-known feminists who help women get abortion pills from abroad is something that I strongly condemn, and I expect that our legal system will finally work and do something about it,” said Anna Szczerbata, media spokesperson of Pro Foundation – right to life.

poland abortion
The cost of abortions in four selected countries (left); the cost of abortion pills (second from right); the Polish minimum wage (right). Prices in US Dollars.

Low-income women get medicine like Arthrotec by lying to drugstores, although the side effects of the medicine are not clear. Some purchase abortion pills from the black market, which may not be effective. An overdose of misoprostol may cause upper gastrointestinal bleeding, gastric and esophageal necrosis and multiorgan failure. “If a woman wants to perform [an] illegal abortion, she can illegally buy pills,” said Emilia Kaczmarek, a bioethicist at the University of Warsaw. “But a lot of women don’t want to risk such a solution.”

Websites like Women on Waves offer advice on safe medical abortion and spread abortion-related knowledge. “The main thing that we do is the high impact campaigns in order to attract somehow media attention and try to push the abortions of picking the political agenda and the public agenda,” said Veronika Sernande, media spokesperson of Women on Waves website. Its sister website, Women on Web, provides abortion pills.

Zareba would like to be a therapist providing sex education in a school, but she is not optimistic about the future: “There is absolutely no chance the abortion laws will change in the near future and I think that many of us lost hope that our situation is going to get better.”


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