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Staunchly Catholic Poland takes a new look at easing abortion laws

Poland has one of Europe's strictest abortion policies, but critics say it has only driven the practice underground. Now, parliament is expected to consider a bill that would ease restrictions.

By Vanessa JohnstonContributor / September 13, 2012



Warsaw, Poland

When pregnant women in Poland decide to have an abortion, they take a common but highly secretive step. "I found some phone numbers in the newspaper; I called around," explains a young blonde woman named Jola. The doctors are listed anonymously in the classifieds section offering to "induce menstruation" or provide "full service." Everybody understands.

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"You cannot use the words 'abortion' or 'termination'; rather, 'I am pregnant – can you help me?' Something like that," she says, speaking of her illegal abortion in the 2009 Polish documentary, "Underground Women's State." None of the seven women interviewed give their full name and all are well disguised.

Although the topic has long been taboo in Poland, leaders on both sides of the abortion debate now acknowledge the existence of this hidden, private practice. And this month, the Polish parliament is expected to vote on whether to liberalize its abortion policy, one of the strictest in Europe.

Under the current law, a woman is allowed an abortion paid for by Poland's universal healthcare only if she is raped, if her health is at risk, or if the fetus is severely deformed. However, anti-abortion sentiment is so strong in Poland that even in those cases, hospitals will often object to the service on the grounds of their own religious beliefs. (In Poland's most famous case, Alicja Tysiac was awarded 25,000 euros – $33,000 – in 2007 by the European Court of Human Rights, after being denied an abortion even though eye specialists had warned that giving birth could make her go blind.)

The legislation proposed by Palikot Movement, a new left-leaning political party, would make abortion available until the 12th week of pregnancy; introduce free or subsidized contraception; and improve the quality of sex education in schools. Advocates of the bill say the current law has not prevented abortions; rather it has fueled a vast, illegal abortion underground.

The legislation is unlikely to win the initial voting round, let alone become law, given the current political climate. Just last year, the lower house of parliament voted in favor of an all-out ban on abortion – that would do away with the current exceptions – by 254 to 151, though it did not survive in the subsequent steps to become law.

But the latest bill signals a renewed energy by the left to challenge the abortion status quo. And the topic of women's reproductive rights is set to gain more national attention at the upcoming 4th Congress of Women, a meeting of Poland’s most prominent women from business, government, academia, NGOs, and the media, that will be held on September 14 and 15 at Warsaw's Palace of Science and Culture.

Post-Communism, underground abortion

In Poland's capital, Warsaw, there is a complex mixture of communist legacy and the capitalism of recent years. A glitzy shopping mall sits across the street from the Stalinist Palace of Science and Culture. Monolithic concrete apartment blocks from the 1960s are juxtaposed with shiny, American-inspired coffee chains.

On the issue of women's reproductive rights, the contrast between the past and the present is equally stark. Often young women growing up in today's democratic Poland are shocked to learn that their mothers, grandmothers, or aunts once had abortions, which were permitted and widely performed during communist times. In 1981, there were 230,000 legal abortions recorded.

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