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.
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By 1993, abortion was effectively banned in Poland in response to pressure from the Catholic Church, which had been instrumental in the fight against Communism. Today, between 90 and 95 percent of Poles identify themselves as Roman Catholic and the church continues to enjoy strong influence over the country's political affairs.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, according to official government reports, there are on average 300 abortions performed each year in the country of 38 million people. But the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning – a pro-choice advocacy group – contends that the actual number falls somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000, generating an estimated $95 million annually for doctors.
However, since it is difficult to accurately quantify the abortion underground, there is disagreement on its scope.
"It is obvious that the official statistics on the number of abortions differ from reality," said Dr. Pawel Wosicki, president of the Polish Federation of Pro-Life Movement. "[Illegal abortion] is a problem, but there is no evidence that this is a very big problem."
According to CBOS, a Polish research institute, recent public opinion polls show that society is evenly split on the issue of abortion. While there has been growing public acknowledgement that the current law has not stopped abortion, many are convinced that it has at least reduced the number of procedures performed. Dr. Wosicki and other pro-life campaigners also believe that there should be more active prosecution of doctors who perform illegal, underground abortions.
On the other hand, the small number of vocal pro-choice activists argues that the current law does not reflect reality and degrades women.
A costly and dangerous procedure
When a woman decides to have an abortion for non-legal reasons, it is either performed on the black market or in other European countries, such as Germany, Britain, or the Czech Republic. The procedure often comes at a high financial cost – between 1,500 and 4,500 zloty ($450 to $1,350) – and for most women, it is as much as their average monthly salary.
Although many underground abortions are thought to be safe and performed by professionals, its covert and unregulated nature ensures there is always risk involved.
"It's never as safe as if it was in a clinic, openly, where you have access to emergency services when something goes wrong," explains Anka Grzywacz of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning.
One patient recalls a doctor smoking cigarettes in the room where the procedure was to take place. Another tells of being abandoned by the doctor before she woke up from the surgery, leaving her to find a way home, still in excruciating pain. Doctors are especially fearful. Even though they reap a sizable profit, it is they, not the women obtaining the abortion, who are prosecuted by the penal system.
Increasingly, women are turning to the Internet for information about and support for abortion. One of the most well-known and utilized sources is the Dutch NGO Women on Web – an extension of Women on Waves, which controversially provides abortions on ships. The Internet has also been an important way for women who want or who have had abortions to share their experiences anonymously, since many never tell a single person – not even their best friend.
"Everyone in this chain of information is very scared," says Agata Chelstowska, a PhD student at the University of Warsaw and women's rights activist. "It's very silent and I know that women are ashamed to talk about it."