Reproductive rights activists in Poland, which has an abortion law. among the strictest in Europe, have a harsh message for their American counterparts: it will be a long fight. And some people are going to die unnecessarily.
In this predominantly Roman Catholic country on the eastern fringes of Europe, dominated by a far-right ruling party, legal bans on abortion are strikingly similar to those in US states that have adopted a Supreme Court ruling. dramatic unraveling half a century of the American right to abortion.
This has not always been the case in Poland. Decades ago, especially in the 1970s when much of Europe had stricter abortion laws, the availability of the procedure made the country a destination for those seeking to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
After the country shook off communist power however, in the 1990s, an intense campaign by religious authorities — Pope John Paul II was born 30 miles from this southern city of cathedrals, crucifixes and stained glass windows — led to the rapid repeal of most abortion rights.
But here, too, the mood is changing.
“We really want this baby,” said Basia, a 24-year-old pregnant woman walking on an overcast day with her husband next to a green park on the outskirts of Krakow. But she did not want her full name to be used because she knew that what she said next would be anathema to many close relatives.
If she had accidentally become pregnant while her husband was completing his PhD and the two of them were making ends meet on her meager salary, she would likely have sought an abortion, she said. He nodded in sober agreement.
The fight to ban abortion fits neatly into the conservative-nationalist agenda Law and Justice Partywho came to power in 2015. Since then, she has waged what critics call a wide-ranging attack on Poland’s rule of law and independent judiciary, drawing strength from a traditionalist electorate whose worldview is at odds with that of much of the Red-state America.
Restrictions have inexorably tightened during the party’s tenure, and by 2021 the ban has been expanded to lift the last major exception: cases of confirmed fetal anomalies. Today, many Polish citizens and some Ukrainian refugees who have taken refuge here travel regularly to other places or buy abortion pills, often from abroad, to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
However, increasingly tight restrictions at home have led to a small-scale but terrifying phenomenon: patients suffering from late pregnancy complications are denied life-saving care if a fetal heartbeat can still be detected.
“Isabela was dying,” said Jolanta Budzowska, an injury lawyer from Krakow. She represents the family of Isabela Cybor, a 30-year-old hairdresser whose death is one of at least three maternal deaths that abortion rights activists blame on restrictive laws and the medical system’s overzealous response to them.
Already a mother of a young daughter, Cybor learned in the second trimester of her desired pregnancy that the fetus she was carrying was seriously defective, her family said. A complication, a chromosomal abnormality known as Edwards syndrome, usually results in fetal death or short-term survival of a full-term baby.
Cybor was admitted to the hospital in September 2021 after her water broke prematurely. Alone in the hospital due to the COVID-19 restrictions at the time, she said in her last agonizing hours that the nation’s abortion measures had turned women into “incubators.”
In frantic texts she sent to her mother and husband, she wrote that the only thing doctors were worried about seemed to be the detection of a fetal heartbeat, not her own deteriorating condition.
Polish abortion law allows for exceptions to the ban if the woman’s life or health is in danger. But Budzowska says the deterrent effect of the restrictions and the ambiguity in legal interpretation means that some healthcare professionals are delaying or refusing to intervene even when it is clear the woman is in danger.
“In the case of Isabela, abortion is theoretically acceptable,” Budzovskaya said. But even after Cybor developed sepsis, a life-threatening reaction to an infection, the doctors “assumed the fetus would die on its own without having to be told how to abort or terminate a live pregnancy,” the lawyer said.
In Ireland the same painful death Savita Halappanavar, 31, pushed for the legalization of abortion in 2012 to protect a woman’s life; in 2018, first-trimester abortions became legal after a referendum overturned a constitutional ban.
In the European Union, access to some form of abortion is the general norm, with the exception of Poland and Malta. Last week, the European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling for the inclusion of safe and legal abortion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. He also condemned the decision of the US Supreme Court.
Liberalization efforts in Poland have repeatedly failed, even though the near-ban on abortion has caused some of the biggest street protests post-communist era. Since 2016, thousands of demonstrators have waved black umbrellas even on clear days as a symbol of what they called government oppression and invasion of privacy.
Although Polish society’s opinion on the extent of restrictions that should remain in place seems mixed, opinion polls indicate that a solid majority supports legal abortion, at least in some circumstances.
“The number of people supporting a more progressive law is growing,” said Kamila Ferenc of the Federation of Women and Family Planning, a Warsaw-based human rights group known as FEDERA.
But so far, public opinion alone has not been enough to bring about change. The last major exceptions to the abortion ban have been overturned by Poland’s highest court, which is overseen by judges loyal to the law and justice. The Conservative Party is also the largest in Parliament, which last month rejected a measure allowing abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
As regards any external pressure on Poland, have you been in Ukraine seen as giving the ruling party more influence in its relations with the EU. Poland, a staunch supporter of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, has played a key role in arming Ukraine and hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees.
Meanwhile, in recent years, there has been a picture ominously familiar to abortion rights activists in the United States: a growing campaign to criminalize assistance to those seeking abortion. Activists face jail time for distributing abortion pills to those in need.
One such activist, Justyna Vydzhinskaya, is currently on trial and is due to appear in court this week. She fears that the authorities will try to set her up as an example; if found guilty, she could be imprisoned for three years or even longer. That didn’t stop her from admitting that in 2020, she tried to send pills to someone who was begging her for help, under painfully familiar circumstances.
“The same thing happened to me,” said Vydzhinskaya, 47, a mother of three who escaped what she called an abusive relationship with a man who tried to force her through an unwanted pregnancy. She defied him and had an abortion; three years later, in 2009, she managed to get a divorce.
“I knew about the risks; I still wanted to help,” she said. Now part of a pan-European network called Abortion Without Borders, Wydzynska limits her efforts to advising Polish women on where to get pills and how to use them, rather than giving them directly.
The riots have only strengthened the resolve of groups fighting to close what they see as remaining loopholes in Poland’s abortion ban. Chief among them is the Catholic organization Ordo Iuris, which has actively lobbied for the repeal of exemptions from fetal anomalies.
Katarzyna Gesiak, who runs the group’s Center for Medical Law and Bioethics, said allowing such exceptions amounted to “eugenics” and denied that the law, as it stands, deprives women of necessary medical protection.
“We were very pleased with this decision; that was the main issue we wanted to change,” she said. But Gesiak has been critical of prosecutors who, she says, are not strict enough to prosecute those who help women get medical abortions.
“They don’t want to prosecute these crimes,” she said.
In the face of calls for an even tougher judicial environment, Polish abortion rights advocates say their struggle is at times lonely but supported by the European partnership.
This feeling of empathy and solidarity with Polish colleagues is now spreading across the Atlantic, said Irene Donadio of the Planned Parenthood Federation European Network.
“Watching what happens in a pro-freedom country”—in the United States—“is a shock,” said Donadio, who, along with other supporters, considers access to abortion a basic human right.
“But what inspired me in Poland is the struggle of citizens when they are so determined,” she said. “When it comes to protecting rights, we can all learn from each other.”