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On 22nd October 2020, the Constitutional Court of Poland issued a ruling declaring the right to abortion unconstitutional in the event of serious and irreversible fetal impairment or of an incurable life-threatening disease. The sentence came into force only in January 2021, but the negative effects were evident right from the start: to have an abortion in a Polish public hospital became practically impossible.
In recent days thousands of people gathered in more than 100 Polish cities under the slogan “Not one more” in memory of Iza, a 30-year-old woman in her 22nd week of pregnancy who died at the Pszczyna hospital due to a septic shock. Although the pregnancy and the woman’s health were at risk, according to the lawyers, doctors hesitated to perform the abortion for fear of being held criminally responsible.
Despite the limitations, in the last 12 months, thanks to the groups operating in the context of Abortion Without Borders (which can be contacted at 22 29 22 597), 34,000 people have been able to access abortion.
According to Marta Lempart, activist, co-founder and leader of the Polish Women’s Strike movement, interviewed by The Bottom Up, “there is no such thing as stopping women to have an abortion if they need one”.
Problems of unconstitutionality
The ruling was questioned not only because it radically restricts access to abortion, but also because it is considered illegitimate, opening the debate on the rule of law, independence and democracy in Poland. Lempart explains that “it is not a real sentence but an announcement made by a person who claims to be President of the Constitutional Court, because in Poland we do not have a Constitutional Court, nor legally elected judges”.
On 21st October 2021, the European Parliament declared in a resolution that the Polish Constitutional Court lacks legal validity and independence and is not qualified to interpret the country’s Constitution: the sentence is therefore illegitimate and it has been recognized that the severe restrictions on women’s health and reproductive rights are illegal.
“This was a very important step “, continues Lempart, “because this way the path to legalize abortion in Poland is still open, and when the bill arrives in Parliament, it will be absolutely legitimate to say that legal abortion stands in compliance with the Constitution “. Lempart and her Polish Women’s Strike movement, together with other organizations and some members of the Parliament, one year after the sentence, are working to collect the number of signatures necessary to deposit the bill in Parliament, in order to replace the Family Planning Act 1993, the current law on abortion that became even more restrictive after the 2020 sentence. The new project would allow unrestricted abortion up to the twelfth week of pregnancy, and afterwards only in the event that a pregnant person’s mental or physical health is at risk, or that the pregnancy is unsustainable or the result of rape or incest.
“It is not only important to collect the 100,000 signatures, what also interests us is to go out on the streets and talk to people, to educate them and raise awareness”, she tells us. “Conservatives too, although they don’t have the inner feeling about human rights or women’s rights, they see that dealing with reality is different, and they agree that all people should have access to abortion, not just the rich. After all, they know that a bill cannot stop people from having an abortion. It is by talking to people and demonstrating in the streets that, from 2016 to today, we have gone from 39% of pro-abortion people to 69% “.
In the last 5 years the work of Polish Women’s Strike has been essential. The movement was born on the initiative of Marta Lempart and her partner Natalia Pancewicz, who together organized the famous Black Monday in October 2016 to protest against the bill on the total ban of the right of abortion. Inspired by the Icelandic women’s strike of 1975, they decided to involve as many people and cities as possible, bringing the protest to 150 cities.
The success of the strike is mainly due to two factors: the impact of the logo and graphics, created by graphic designer Ola Jasionowska, which were widely shared on social networks; moreover, it was a grassroots action. “Several people who asked for information on how to participate in the protest eventually became local leaders and organizers. The demonstration was successful and the law was blocked, but the backlash was very strong: there was an unprecedented scale of harassment of local leaders by the Church”, explains Lempart. “The movement was born from the rebellion of these women”.
Bottom-up action has become the rule in Poland. In addition to Polish Women’s Strike, other organizations played an equally important role, such as Aborcyjny Dream Team and Abortion Without Borders, which provide help to people with unwanted pregnancies, inform about available options for safe abortion, give advice before, during and after an abortion, provide information on how to obtain safe abortion pills and give financial, logistical and practical support to people seeking an abortion abroad .
“The ban on abortion doesn’t mean no abortion, it just means that we have to look for out-of-the-system and self-organized help”, explains Lempart. “For example, the number of abortions that Abortion Witout Borders used to provide in a month, now they provide it in a day, and this is thanks to the 2020 protest, when their phone number appeared everywhere so now people know about the service and where to turn for help ”.
“Taking into account Polish government statistics of how many abortions were previously performed in Polish hospitals, we conclude that Abortion Without Borders has taken over almost all the abortions previously provided by the Polish state. The responsibility for abortions now rests on the shoulders of feminist organizations and informal groups and depends on money raised from donations”, explains the Women Help Women association, an international organization that facilitates postal access to abortion pills and has helped 18,000 people in Poland in the last year.
How to have an abortion
The court ruling has effectively blocked the entire public health system regarding pregnancy and birth care: even people who could still have a legal abortion, because the pregnancy is a result of rape crime or incest, don’t trust the public health care system and choose to go have an out-of-the-system abortion, because they know they will be harassed, that their names will be given to pro-life organization. “Even prenatal tests are taken out of the system, because people don’t trust doctors; they often lie and say that a pregnancy is going okay, even when it is not,” says Lempart. “If by chance there is a suspicion that you may even be considering having an abortion, then you are going to be being harassed”.
The only solution to be able to have an abortion in Poland, regardless of the reason, whether it is legal or not, is to go to the private health sector, or to a self-organized association, or clinics in other countries. Even getting a prescription for emergency contraception is hard, unless you turn to grassroots initiatives, and sterilization is illegal for women in Poland, so the only solution is to go abroad. Men, on the other hand, are free to do it.
“Abortion is not an opinion, abortion is a decision that individuals make when they need it, when they have unwanted pregnancies and want to terminate them. Sometimes, on the other hand, it is a wanted pregnancy, diagnosed with defects that preclude the possibility of life for the child after birth”, declares Justyna Wydrzyńska of Women in the Newtork. Abortion Without Borders helps in both cases and was established precisely to provide mental, psychological, logistical and above all financial support for those people who cannot travel abroad on their own, for those people who do not speak the language and need translation to communicate with medical personnel.
“There are studies that show that women, who in normal conditions would want children, decide against it. In this situation, when they know that the whole system is be against them, they just decide not to do it at all. They decide not to get pregnant”, concludes Marta Lempart.
Imagine cover: Marta Bogdanowicz