Discussing the total abortion ban in Poland
By Joanna Chojnicka
A little bit over one year ago, in June 2015, I gave a presentation at the University of Bielefeld about the abortion controversy in Poland. The conservative president Andrzej Duda had been elected just couple of weeks before, so the talk seemed well timed. I said that while women had been expecting a change in the abortion law for a long time, with the new president the law was more likely to be further restricted than liberalized – contrary to those expectations.
But Duda’s election did not cause much concern in Poland. People were saying that a president does not have much power anyway, and that the new parliament to be elected in October 2015 would balance the conservative president. Well, it did not. The victory went to Duda’s party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), and with it came many changes that made it clear the party does not care much for democratic values. Including a proposal of a total ban on abortion.
A total ban on abortion means that a pregnancy cannot be terminated even if it poses a threat to the woman’s life or health, results from crime (rape or incest), or if the foetus is malformed. Abortion is allowed in all these cases according to the current law in Poland, but in practice it is rarely carried out due to the atmosphere of extreme social pressure that doctors and pregnant women are subjected to. Medical services and financial support for pregnant women and mothers are organized in a way that makes their availability dependent on an early notification and registration of pregnancy. This means that there is an unofficial system of “monitoring pregnancies” in place whose aim is to prevent legal and illegal abortions (1). Doctors refuse to perform legal abortions due to fears of social or legal sanctions, making use of the so-called “conscience clause” (2).
One of the arguments for the total ban is that legal abortion in Poland is unnecessary, as there are so few procedures conducted under the current law; but this argument only takes into account the official numbers.
The number of legal abortions on the grounds of a threat to the woman’s health or life diminished between 1993 and 2007 from 736 to 37 procedures per year (the difference is 95 per cent). When it comes to legal abortions on the grounds of pregnancy resulting from crime, three such abortions were carried out in 2005, while there were 1773 cases of reported rape in the same year (1). And while possibly only 3-5% of rapes result in pregnancy (3), in Poland up to 90% rapes are not reported to the police (4).
On the other hand, the number of legal abortions on the grounds of serious damage to the foetus is increasing: from 82 in 2002, 168 in 2005, 287 in 2007, 510 in 2009, to 620 in 2011 (5). But the number of legal abortions still does not even come close to the demand, as the statistics on illegal abortions show (see below). If anything, it suggests that doctors are more willing to perform an abortion if a baby is going to suffer than if a woman is going to suffer. The rights of the unborn in Poland take precedence over the rights of women.
The number of illegal abortions is estimated at between 100.000 and 190.000 procedures per year. The cost of an illegal abortion may reach 2500 PLN (approx. 600 EUR; average monthly gross salary in Poland is 3700 PLN). It is obvious that illegal abortions are not available to poorer women, as well as women living in the countryside or in smaller towns (1). Abortions in the underground or abroad are clearly a privilege of wealthy urban women, while poor women forced to give birth only get poorer.
Consequences of the total abortion ban
Legal abortion in Poland already is extremely rare; many doctors feel free to refuse carrying it out due to their faith, and in some cases they misinform the pregnant woman (in other words, they lie to her) about the stage of her pregnancy or the condition the foetus is in. A total abortion ban would increase the number of personal tragedies similar to the ones summarized below for illustration:
|example 1||“In July 2014, 36 year-old Agnieszka X reported Professor Bogdan Chazan to the media – he was a director of Warsaw’s Holy Mother Hospital who had refused to legally terminate her 22-week pregnancy. The woman claimed that while she was informed that her foetus was severely damaged – it did not have a skull and lacked most of its brain – she was denied a legal abortion procedure. Professor Chazan refused to perform the legal abortion, referring to the “conscience clause” that allowed him to refuse to perform services that were not in accordance with his beliefs.While the doctor had a legal right to refuse to provide a legal abortion, in the Chazan case this decision was communicated to the patient too late; as a consequence she was not able to undergo an abortion in another hospital. Moreover, the doctor did not provide information about the possibility of accessing the service elsewhere – something he was obliged to do by the 1996 Polish Law concerning the Medical profession. In addition, the doctor aimed to convince the woman that she should give birth; he claimed that the damage to the foetus was not fatal and argued that the child could live for a long time and undergo several medical procedures. He also suggested that the baby would suffer less being born “naturally” than during an abortion procedure. And finally, he suggested that the child could be adopted and provided the patient and her husband with information about child hospices” (2).The child was born on June 30th 2014 and died on July 9th. Chazan was dismissed from his position at the hospital on the same day (6). In May 2015, the public prosecutor announced that there would be no criminal charges against him (7).|
|example 2||In another well-known case, a woman with a very serious eye condition was refused a legal abortion on the grounds of a risk to her health, and her eye sight deteriorated as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. “On 11 January 2001 the social welfare centre issued a certificate to the effect that she was unable to take care of her children as she could not see from a distance of more than 1.5 metres”. The woman “sued one of the doctors. Her criminal lawsuits were rejected in Poland and the case was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which accepted one part of the complaint, and the plaintiff was awarded damages.” (8)|
Such things are already happening. A total ban on abortion would additionally criminalize:
– miscarriages, which are very frequent especially in the first trimester and happen at no fault of the pregnant women – because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a “natural” from an induced abortion. Women in El Salvador, which has a total abortion ban, do go to prison for suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth;
– ectopic pregnancies – in such a case, an embryo attaches outside the uterus without a chance to survive, while the risk of a rupture that is likely to cause the woman’s death is high (9). As a side note, removing an embryo in the case of ectopic pregnancy should not even be considered an abortion. Outside the uterus, it is simply impossible for the embryo to develop into a foetus, let alone a baby. Such a situation should be considered a medical emergency, nothing more;
– prenatal testing and fetal surgery: doctors would be too afraid to conduct these due to the risk of death of the foetus, which means that many diseases that could be treated during pregnancy and result in a healthy baby will in fact produce a malformed or terminally ill baby. Additionally, doctors could use the “conscience clause” to refuse conducting a prenatal examination, to prevent discovering existing foetus malformations that could qualify for an abortion (e.g. underground or abroad);
– abortions of child pregnancies, which are often the result of incestuous rape and may cause the child mother’s death or serious health risks and/or malformed or terminally ill babies.
In many cases, women who give birth in spite of a high risk to their own health or in spite of the foetus being malformed are never able to conceive again. This means that devastating their health or giving birth to a baby that will live for a couple of days or require constant care for many years is more important than a chance of a healthy baby in the future.
A total abortion ban, especially in the atmosphere of prioritizing the rights of the foetus over women’s rights, can also result in doctors choosing to save the baby’s life over the mother’s life in a life-threatening delivery. Also, it can restrict women’s access to specific forms of contraception – doctors may become reluctant to prescribe intrauterine contraception or even the pill as they may be accused of inducing miscarriages by doing so.
A total ban would mean that getting pregnant would become highly risky – at the time when the medical know-how that could save almost all women with problematic pregnancies (in many cases easily) does exist. Pregnant women would be singled out as the only category of people who would be denied life-saving procedures available in all other cases. Will anyone tell me that this does not mean that pregnant women are considered vessels whose only function is to carry the future Polish citizens, not full human beings?
The consequences of a total ban can now be observed in El Salvador, where women go to prison for many years for giving birth to dead babies, often leaving older children in need of their care at home. I recommend this text, which also has more stories from places closer to home, e.g. Ireland (but also an example from a Catholic hospital in the US):
(1) Chełstowska, A. 2009. “Krótka historia aborcji”. In A. Czerwińska & J. Piotrowska (eds.) 20 lat zmian. Raport. Warszawa: Fundacja Feminoteka, pp. 11-30.
(2) Grabowska, M. 2015. Cultural war or “business as usual”? Recent instances, and the historical origins, of a “backlash” against women’s and sexual rights in Poland. In Heinrich Böll Stiftung (ed.) Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise? Berlin: Heinrich Böll Stiftung, pp. 54-64.
(5) CBOS, 2013. Komunikaty z badań (BS/60). Doświadczenia aborcyjne Polek. Warszawa: CBOS.