International women’s rights day in post-abortion ban Poland

Piotr Lapinski / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

8 March 2023. Three years after the ruling of Poland’s current Constitutional Tribunal regarding an almost complete ban on abortion, women in the country are struggling to access basic sexual and reproductive rights. Access to contraception in Poland is ranked worst in Europe according to the latest European Contraception Policy Atlas. Simultaneously, women supporting other women in seeking safe abortions continue to be prosecuted. On the international women’s rights day FIDH takes a look at what is happening in the country, which now also faces the tragedy of female refugees who experienced war-related sexual violence.

After the 2020 decision of the politically-influenced Constitutional Tribunal in Poland regarding the ban on abortion in cases where a fetus is either presumed not viable after birth or genetically impaired, the reality of women in Poland shifted from bad to one of the worst scenarios plausible. In addition to the above, the fight for the remainder of sexual and reproductive rights – such as the right to access to information on abortion – remains under fire from antiabortion activists. A new draft law proposes the penalization of such activity with actual jail time. The first hearing on the bill is set to happen on the 8th of March 2023 – the international women’s rights day.

It comes as no surprise that antiabortion activists would carry on with their campaign against women’s rights by attacking one of the last official ways civil society and individual women themselves continue to support those needing access to abortion – by providing information channels on the topic. The very act of aiding in abortion, i.e. through delivering abortion pills or providing help (including financial aid) in obtaining them, is punishable up to 3 years of jailtime according to current Polish Criminal Code provisions. However, providing information about possibilities of accessing such health services is - as of yet - not.

Kaja Godek, one of the most prominent Polish anti-abortion movement leaders, also partly responsible for the success of the abortion ban due to organizing radical social pressure on political actors who filed the motion which reached its final the Constitutional Tribunal in 2020, submitted a new draft law to the Polish Sejm on the 28th of December 2022. It states that “producing, recording, importing, purchasing, creating, using, presenting, transferring or sending print, copying or other, or data carriers” which contain information on access to abortion, as well as publicly informing about possibilities of obtaining it will be punishable under law – with a sanction of up to two years in prison.

The new draft bill will be heard in the Polish Sejm (lower chamber of Parliament) on the 8th of March – the international women’s rights day. Although the ruling coalition stated it means to reject the new idea, human rights defenders will be keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.

Penalizing access to information about their sexual health and rights is not the only “present” Polish women have received ahead of their day of celebration this year from Polish authorities. In Szczecin, one of Poland’s biggest cities, located by the sea and nearby the German border, Central Anticorruption Agency agents took over the entire data base of health documentation from the last 30 years in one of the gynecological offices. The Prosecutor who signed off on the decision is leading an investigation into a pharmaceutical abortion which was supposed to take place against the current law, which permits for only two exceptions – when the pregnant person’s life or health is threatened and when the pregnancy is a result of a crime. However, the case files which were taken did not concern only one case – but all of the patient files gathered by the said gynecologist – dr Maria Kubisa. This means no less than all the most sensitive health and personal data of all the patients who came in over the last 30 years could have been looked over by prosecutors. It was only after an uproar from the media that the documentation was delivered back to the office. The “detainment of medical case files” will not be left unanswered however – the patients have taken it upon themselves and declared they will question the prosecutor’s judgment in court and are prepared to go as far as it takes, even to the European Court of Human Rights.

Lastly, one cannot overall the unfortunate and newly established precedent of Justyna Wydrzyńska, who remains accused of the crime of aiding in an illegal abortion by supplying abortion pills to a third party – a woman seeking abortion due to her difficult life situation. Justyna, although supported by human rights defenders worldwide, continues to stand trial and faces up to three years of prison time.

Although Polish authorities continue to claim that abortion in the some cases can and does take place in Polish hospitals, statistics state how manipulative such a statement can be. With a population of around 9 mln women and girls of reproductive age, according to government data only 107 abortions took place in hospitals in 2021. To put those numbers into perspective, in 2021 the police initiated 2 257 proceedings in cases of rape. 1081 of those were confirmed according to the provisions applicable from the Polish Criminal Code. However, in 2021 there were no abortions carried out due to a pregnancy being a result of a crime.

The disturbing takeaway from all of the above is that the law no longer protects women and their rights to obtaining – even legally – an abortion in Poland. Prosecutors, tied with politically influenced decisions due to the Minister of Justice being the Prosecutor General simultaneously, with the power of issuing binding instructions, are left with no independence. Furthermore, the degradation of the rule of law in the country largely led to the abortion ban coming to life in the first place – after unlawfully replacing the majority of the Constitutional Tribunal with persons closest to the ruling party’s ideological agenda – the decision taken in the abortion case was upsetting, but not a surprise.

Read more