Reproductive rights are a political issue in Poland. This is particularly visible in the election campaign, which makes it all the more surprising that many women do not want to vote.
Two years have passed since the mass protests against restrictions on reproductive rights in Poland. On one day alone, 28 October 2020, 410 demonstrations are said to have taken place, with more than 400,000 people participating. These mass protests were a reaction to the further tightening of the already restrictive abortion law. The Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled in autumn 2020 that women could no longer have abortions even if the foetus had severe malformations. This meant a de facto ban on abortion, because the vast majority of legal abortions in Poland were based on this criterion. Following the ruling, abortion is only legal in two cases: if the pregnancy is the result of a criminal offence or if there is a danger to the life and health of the pregnant woman. Even though the protests showed the great strength and determination of Polish civil society, they did not result in a political movement. Political change was not achieved even if many opposition parties are now in favour of liberalising the abortion law. Social change, on the other hand, is continuously taking place. Various polls show that the majority of Poles are in favour of legal abortions up to the 12th week.
With the parliamentary elections only weeks away, women's rights are very much in evidence in the election campaign, though sometimes, regrettably, in statements that deny women their autonomy and right to self-determination. However, the Polish debate on gender justice is focused on reproductive rights and on access to legal abortion in particular. This could be an advantage because a fact-based discussion on abortion may generate fresh perspectives on a whole range of problems, such as gender-based violence, the situation of women from particularly vulnerable groups or the ongoing rule of law and constitutional crisis. Some opposition politicians, activists and civil society organisations are trying to raise awareness about the fact that the rights of women and other people who are discriminated against because of their gender or gender identity are human rights. They point out, among other things, that restrictions on reproductive rights are considered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to be a violation of the right to privacy and freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment. The feminist discourses that have dominated since 1989 are critically reflected on and reproductive rights are increasingly put into the context of social inequality. Emphasis is placed on unequal access to abortion for people from smaller towns, people on low incomes, those without a permanent place of residence, refugees, and migrants.
Public attention to reproductive rights contrasts with women's actual participation in the political process. Many women are not politically active and do not even plan to vote in the upcoming elections. This is particularly evident in the 18-34 age group. In this group, fewer than half declare that they will vote in the elections. More than 60% avoid talking about politics while only 40% follow the news in the media and are interested in what is happening in Polish politics. This is a surprising result in a country which currently has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and whose legislation was considered incompatible with human rights standards and a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights even before 2020. Two ECHR rulings on abortion (2007 Tysiąc v. Poland and R.R. v. Poland) have not been implemented. For example, it is still not possible to challenge a doctor's decision to deny access to abortion. This procedure is urgently needed. The current strict legislation results in abortions no longer being available in some cases even when they are medically necessary to save a life. A number of women have already died because they could not receive an abortion in Poland.
There are many examples of the violation of reproductive and sexual autonomy in Poland that go beyond denying access to legal and safe abortion: lack of sex education in schools, difficulties in gaining access to prenatal diagnostics and contraceptives. Poland ranks last in the European Contraception Atlas, a ranking that rates 46 European countries on access to modern contraceptives. There is no contraceptive reimbursement system, which is critical for groups who are in particular need of support. Emergency contraception is available only on prescription and doctors can refuse to prescribe it, invoking the so-called conscience clause. In the current election campaign, activists and civil society organisations are putting pressure on candidates to clearly state their position on reproductive rights and gender equality. They want to mobilise women to vote by showing that the elections have a direct impact on their lives.
In Poland, it is not only the rigid legislation that is problematic, but also the actions of the state authorities. Police, public prosecutors and health authorities try to intimidate people who need an abortion. Following the introduction of the pregnancy register, confiscation of medical records from gynaecologists (as happened in Szczecin, for instance), house searches and police interventions in hospitals, there is more and more fear. The state's crackdown is supported by ultra-conservative and anti-feminist organisations which want to completely abolish the right to abortion and have been trying to influence Polish politics and the government for years. Many Polish women are currently forced to travel to clinics abroad or order abortion drugs online. With the pressure constantly growing, a network of organisations, initiatives and activists is trying to offer women abortion assistance and make credible information about reproductive health accessible.
The activist Justyna Wydrzyńska has become the face of this new feminist movement. A first-instance court in Warsaw sentenced her in March 2023 to a fine and eight months of unpaid community service for being an accessory to abortion. She shared abortion drugs from her private stock with a pregnant woman who, despite very poor health which threatened her life, was not able to have a legal abortion. After a failed attempt to terminate the pregnancy in Berlin, she tried to have an abortion by taking medication. Her partner, who was strictly against abortion and constantly monitored her, found the pills and notified the police. Aborting a pregnancy on one's own is not illegal under the Polish Criminal Code, but the public prosecutors adopted a broad interpretation of the concept of aiding and abetting in abortion and brought charges against Justyna Wydrzyńska even though the pills had not been taken and the abortion had not taken place.
This case exemplifies the helplessness and loneliness of a struggle against a system that isolates women and their supporters. However, it also shows that people are looking for a new community and opportunities for action in a repressive environment. There are many similar stories that were previously only told in secret in Poland. This stigma is now changing, even though the shift is not free from conflict and resistance. Activists and women's organisations collect and publish stories about pregnancy, abortion, and gender-based violence, and try to put women's points of view, in all their diversity, at the centre of the political debate. Many of those affected make their experiences visible by depositing their stories of trauma and institutional violence in the Women’s Stories archive run by the Foundation for Women and Family Planning FEDERA. Looking beyond this parliamentary election and next year's EU and local elections, activists are focusing on working towards political change by running a political archive and doing advocacy work, as well as openly talking about reproductive rights as human rights – without taboos and shame.
This article first appeared here: pl.boell.org