Natalia is a young graduate student in hematology here in Warsaw. She didn’t think twice about joining Lekarze Kobietom (“Doctors for Women”).
“In 2017, the Polish government decided to restrict access to emergency contraception,” said Natalia, whose last name we are withholding to protect her safety. Two years prior, the morning-after pill had been liberalized on the basis of a Europe-wide decision. “Under the new law, you must have a prescription to get the morning-after pill, and the doctor can refuse to issue it on grounds of conscience.”
The crackdown by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczynski has had immediate consequences: in some areas, the number of doctors who are willing to prescribe such medication can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
“I went right away to contact Aleksandra Krasowska on Facebook,” Natalia said.
Lekarze Kobietom is an informal network of Polish doctors and medical students, lead by the crusading psychiatrist Aleksandra Krasowska, with the specific aim of limiting the damage done by the 2017 law. The network brings together volunteers from various regions of the country.
“In Poland, the percentage of doctors objecting on grounds of conscience is very high,” Natalia says, “and accordingly, there is the risk of not being able to find a doctor to sign the prescription in time. The most useful thing was to ‘map out’ the locations of the clinics and medical practices willing to do that on the territory of the country. We have started a website where women can ask for advice, and, in particular, where they can get support for obtaining emergency contraception. We direct those who contact us to the doctors in our network who are available to provide the morning-after pill.”
This is a service that, in theory, should be guaranteed by the state medical system, but is instead being carried out by a group of activists. “In Poland, contraception and abortion are taboo, especially for the medical profession. In some medical schools, no one is even taught how to perform an abortion,” Natalia says.
A vague abortion law
But not all women who come into contact with Lekarze Kobietom are doing so to obtain the morning-after pill. Very often, it happens that women write them at the point when they are already in need of an abortion, and that is where things gets more complicated.
The Polish law on abortion, in force since 1993 (one of the most restrictive laws in Europe), permits the termination of a pregnancy in only three cases: as a result of rape or incest, if there are health risks for the mother, and in the presence of severe malformation of the fetus. In addition, one can be prosecuted for having “helped” a woman have an abortion.
“It’s a very vague law,” says Liliana Religa from Federa (the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning), an organization that has been fighting for women’s rights since the ‘90s. “Our fear is that it can be used by the government to persecute organizations that are in favor of a woman’s right to choose, even stopping them from merely giving out general information. Or, it can be used to punish whoever offers support: someone has recently been denounced for having accompanied a woman who was going to have an abortion in Germany in their vehicle. In short, they are doing everything to make it difficult to access contraception and pregnancy termination services.”
It is thus necessary to circumvent the rules and avert the obstacles, organizing “underground railroads” for the exercise of women’s free choice. If you require support for an abortion, from Lekarze Kobietom site you will often be directed to Kobiety w Sieci (“Women Online”).
“This is a group to which you can go for any practical information,” Religa said. “Some of the women there have had experience with drug-induced abortion, and will share their experience with those who contact them for questions and advice.”
Through Kobiety w Sieci (which in turn relies on the Women on Web and Women on Waves international networks), you can order an abortion pill to be delivered directly to your home. They are shipped via simple packages (even as the border police is stepping up controls), or, in some cases, even using drones.
According to the researchers at the World Health Organization, telemedicine services such as Women on Web are considered to be safe abortion methods, even if there are still many problems with this solution. First of all, there is the issue of timing. If the package with the pill is held before arriving at its destination, the woman could find herself at a too-advanced stage of pregnancy. In addition, there is the psychological stress that comes with taking the drug.
“I will never forget the fear, when my girlfriend had to swallow this pill from an unknown sender, without any medical assistance regarding how the drug-induced abortion would work, and without guarantees about what exactly she was taking,” a young man, who prefers to remain anonymous, told us. He was driven by this episode to start taking part in the struggle for reproductive rights.
Leaving Poland for care
An alternative—certainly a more expensive one—is having an abortion abroad. In the countries bordering Poland, there are private clinics for surgical abortion that will take charge of the entire process, from the trip to the return home, for a sum between €400 and €600 (while the average salary in Poland is €830 per month). There are dedicated phone lines to make an appointment, and the nurses and doctors speak Polish.
“You start off early in the morning, almost in the dark,” says Marta Syrwid, who underwent the procedure in Slovakia and decided to go public with her experience. “It’s hard to describe what you feel when being transported across the border, for such an intimate operation, in a van driven by strangers. It’s all very strange and aseptic. When we first arrived at the clinic, I had to sign a paper written in bad Polish which said that I had gone there because I had a miscarriage in progress.”
The laws of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the main destinations for Polish women, seem to be contradictory on this point. Voluntary abortion is theoretically reserved only for those who reside permanently in the country, and the declaration of a miscarriage in progress would thus be expedient in order to act in quasi-legality. The practice is not much publicized, either by the governments or by the clinics, so as not to spoil the diplomatic relations with Poland.
It’s different when we look further west, with movements like Ciocia Basia in Berlin, or the Abortion Network Amsterdam in the Dutch capital. These are volunteer groups united in support of women and transexual, non-binary and queer persons. Their goal is to ensure everyone can have a safe abortion, regardless of their ability to pay. Besides the surgical intervention, they also offer psychological and logistical support.
‘Abortion is OK’
Whether inside or outside Poland’s borders, however, the central issue is that of awareness. “Abortion is OK,” said the signs at the forefront of the parade organized on Sept. 30 in Warsaw.
On that day, women took to the streets for the first time to demonstrate in favor of free choice, not just against the attempts by the PiS to restrict access to abortion even further. A long column of marchers crossed Most Poniatowskiego, the bridge over the Vistula, while some pickets of Catholic pro-lifers tried to stop them.
“Those who took part in the March for Safe and Legal Abortion in September were very brave,” says Religa from Federa, which supported the initiative at the organizational level. “The current climate is not the best. The slogan ‘Abortion is OK’ aroused scandal even within the feminist movement, and the organizers of the march were sometimes called ‘too radical.’ But it is a promising start. I believe that the protests in recent years are opening the eyes of many. According to surveys, the majority of the population is now in favor of the full legalization of abortion and reproductive rights.”
What is missing is the political will to listen to such demands. The last regional elections confirmed the hegemony of the PiS in the more rural areas of the country, and Kaczynski’s party seems determined to maintain its authoritarian and conservative positions.
“To date, we have received more than 10,000 requests for help,” explains Natalia, an activist for Lekarze Kobietom. To this number, according to estimates, one should add an extra 100,000 Polish women forced to abort illegally or abroad. “This is a government that hates women. But with our network, we have finally understood that there are so many of us and that we are able to do something concrete.”
Mara Biaggiotti and Francesca Bonfada contributed to this report.