Welcome to Poland. NGOs, local administrations and ordinary citizens continue to work as cogs in an extraordinary solidarity machine that has managed the arrival or, in some cases, the transit of at least 2.8 million Ukrainians since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
But for the refugees who are dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, the country on the Vistula is by no means the Promised Land – quite the contrary. And since last month, volunteers from the anti-abortion “Life and Family” foundation have been trying to proselytize among female refugees as they enter Poland.
In some cases, the bilingual “information” leaflets, in Polish and Ukrainian, prepared by the pro-life organization led by Kaja Godek, featuring a quote from Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the image of a dismembered fetus, are one of the first things to end up in the hands of women at the beginning of their adventure across the border.
“The greatest threat to peace is abortion. If the mother is allowed to kill her own children, what’s to stop us from doing it to each other,” read the leaflets, informing about the criminal consequences of voluntary terminations of pregnancy, which are almost completely illegal in Poland after the shocking October 2020 ruling of the pro-government Constitutional Court which outlawed therapeutic abortion.
Yet, the law in Poland still allows for the medical procedure in two cases: when the pregnancy is endangering the health of the mother and in cases of rape. However, in the materials distributed by “Life and Family,” which for years has been pushing for a total ban on abortion, this kind of information is not provided. While there are more and more testimonies of Ukrainian victims of sexual violence at the hands of Russian soldiers, last week we also heard news about the women raped in Bucha who were frightened by the idea of going to a country where abortion is almost impossible to perform.
This is a trauma that compounds on the trauma due to war for many Ukrainians, who come from a country where it is always possible to terminate a pregnancy up to the twelfth week of pregnancy and with the help of public funds. Before the war unleashed by the Kremlin, Ukraine, thanks to its liberal legislation on the subject, was one of the preferred destinations for Polish women to have abortions abroad.
The laws governing abortion in Poland do not offer any clarification as to whether the crime of sexual violence must have taken place on national territory in order to authorize an abortion. Since the signing of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998, incidents of sexual violence in a war context have been recognized as international crimes against humanity.
Nevertheless, in Poland, abortion continues to be denied even to female refugee who are victims of rape. Furthermore, there is also the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also signed by Warsaw, but from which the coalition led by the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) has repeatedly threatened to withdraw.
“In our country, the approval to perform abortion on rape victims can only come from a prosecutor. Usually, the Polish authorities are able to drag this out for a long time, to the point that in the end it is no longer possible to perform it. And even if by some miracle you manage to get approval, it is very difficult to find a medical facility where you can undergo the procedure. In the district of Precarpathia, for example, it has been years since an abortion was last performed,” says Anita Kucharska-Dziedzic, deputy of the New Left (Nowa Lewica).
Earlier this month, Kucharska-Dziedzic introduced a bill to unblock the situation in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament: “My bill would have required the prosecutors to make a decision within 7 days on the admissibility of an abortion request. The Ministry of Justice may have feared that too many women would take advantage of a more efficient decision-making mechanism. The law in Poland should adapt to the needs of the citizens and not to those of bishops and politicians,” says Kucharska-Dziedzic, whose initiative was later rejected by the Sejm.
Last month, there was also news of a 19-year-old refugee who had been raped by a Polish citizen who had offered her hospitality in Wroclaw. In Poland, the path to the right to choose for women fleeing war, and not only, is an uphill struggle, now more than ever.
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