Barriers to Abortion Access: Poland

As a follow-up to my post on compulsory pregnancy in Poland, there are a few things I would like to explain in more detail.

The title of my post was “compulsory pregnancy” in Poland rather than “compulsory childhood” or “compulsory motherhood”.  One of my readers made a comment on this, so i think it is important to explain my decision.  Pregnant people in Poland are forced to continue on with their pregnancy, but as we know, pregnancy does not always end in childbirth.  According to Planned Parenthood, ten to twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.  Miscarriage usually occurs in the first trimester, but can happen at any point before the twentieth week of pregnancy.  Any pregnant person can have a miscarriage, regardless of their age, race, socioeconomic status, etc.  Therefore, if a Polish person were to have a miscarriage, they would not be forced to give birth or become a parent; rather, they would have been forced to endure pregnancy for a certain amount of time.

I would also like to talk more about Poland’s abortion law, which I briefly mentioned.  From 1956 to 1993, abortion was legal in Poland.  Because Poland was under communist rule, it was crucial that women were able to actively participate in the labour market.  Abortion was not seen as a human right; rather, it was seen as a way to ensure a larger workforce.  The fall of communism in 1989 meant that women were no longer needed in the labour market; they could return to their traditional roles as wives and mothers.  The Catholic Church took advantage of this transitional period and began pressuring the government to regulate their law on abortion.  Three years later, in 1992, doctors adopted “The Medical Code of Ethics.”  This new policy stated that abortions on social grounds or as a result of sexual assault were “impossible.”  As a result of these two initiatives, access to abortion became very limited.  The procedure was becoming very expensive and was only being offered in select hospitals.  As if this were not bad enough, the government finally reacted to these pressures in 1993 by passing the Family Planning, Protection of Human Fetus and Conditions for Termination of Pregnancy Act.

The Family Planning, Protection of Human Fetus and Conditions for Termination of Pregnancy Act makes it almost impossible for a pregnant person in Poland to have an abortion.  In order to qualify for this procedure, one must fit into one of these three criterion:

“If the pregnancy constitutes a threat to the life or health of the mother, and this threat is confirmed by a doctor other than the one conducting the abortion. The termination of pregnancy is conducted in public hospital.”

“If the pre-natal examination or other medical reasons point at the high probability of severe and irreversible damage to the fetus or on an incurable disease, life-threatening of a child (confirmed by a medical doctor other than the one conducting the abortion). The termination of pregnancy is conducted in a public hospital.”

“If there is a confirmed suspicion that the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act. The termination of pregnancy in this case is allowed, if a woman is less then 12 weeks pregnant. The criminal circumstances, entitling to lawful abortion, have to be confirmed by a prosecutor. The termination of pregnancy may also be conducted in a private clinic.”

In theory, there are exceptions to the abortion ban, but this is not how it works in reality.  As I have already written about, there are countless barriers to abortion access, even in countries where abortion is legal.  In Poland, the restrictions are even more severe.

  • Overall, the law is worded in a very ambiguous way.  The law does not explicitly state when an abortion can be performed legally, therefore leaving it up to the doctors to make the decision.  What constitutes a “threat” to the pregnant person or “damage” to the fetus”?
  • A pregnant person seeking an abortion is required to give written consent.
    • If they are between the ages of 13 and 18, a parent is also required to give their consent.
      • Parental consent is a controversial issue all around the world, not just in Poland.  There are many reasons why someone between the ages of 13 and 18 would not want to tell their parent(s) that she was pregnant.  What if they had become pregnant as the result of rape or incest?  What if their parent(s) are abusive?  It is not always in the best interest of the individual to speak to their parents, and they should not be forced to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable… it is their choice.
    • Pregnant people under the age of 13 are only required to give their opinion about the abortion verbally and one parent must sign the written consent.
    • An “incapacitated person” is also required to give written consent unless the state deems they are mentally incapable.  Similarly to cases involving individuals that have not yet turned 13, an “incapacitated person” that is not able to sign the consent form is able to have a parent or guardian sign as a representative.
    • When a parent or guardian is not available or does not want to sign as a representative, the court can make the decision on behalf of the individual, but whose best interest does the court have in mind?  As I discussed in my last post, pregnancy is compulsory in Poland.  In that case, wouldn’t it make sense that the court encourage, even require, pregnant people to stay pregnant?
  • The “clause of conscience” gives doctors the right to refuse to perform an abortion.
    • Many times, doctors are afraid to perform abortions, even if they are personally pro-choice. According to Polish law, any individual that helps someone obtain an abortion can be sentenced to three years in prison.  The doctor performing the procedure can have his/her license revoked and will no longer be able to practice medicine.
    • According to the law, the doctor can only use this clause when the patient has time to go to another doctor and is not in any great medical danger.  The doctor is also required to refer the patient to another doctor.  Although the law states this on paper, this does not happen in reality.
    • If the patient dies during the procedure, the criminal penalty can be up to ten years.
    • If the fetus has reached the “point of viability,” the aiding individual(s) can be imprisoned for up to eight years.
  • As I mentioned earlier, a person seeking an abortion must receive permission, so to speak, from two doctors.  This is particularly difficult considering the clause of conscience, the lack of abortion providers in the country, and the doctors’ fear of imprisonment.
  • Abortions are only allowed to be performed by doctors in public hospitals.
    • Although there are hospitals all around the country, very few of them are willing to perform abortions.  This creates a great barrier to people living in rural areas that cannot afford to pay for travel and transportation.
    • When I went to Poland, I stayed in Krakow, the country’s cultural capital.  Aside from Warsaw, Krakow is the biggest city in Poland.  After doing a lot of research in the area, I learned that only one hospital in the entire city does legal abortions.  The hospital is located outside of the city center and will only perform abortions in cases of (extreme) medical emergency.

If someone is seeking an abortion after becoming pregnant as the result of a crime, they must take her case to a prosecutor to obtain a certificate which “proves” that they are indeed the survivor of criminal offense.

  • The individual must go to the prosecutor before the 12th week of pregnancy.  This is problematic for numerous reasons.
  • Many times, pregnant people do not even know that they are pregnant until the end of the first trimester/beginning of the second trimester.
  • Going to the prosecutor can be very traumatic, especially since he/she may not believe your situation. The chance of being re-victimized by the criminal justice system is likely.
Unfortunately, there are many barriers to abortion access in Poland, even for those that are legally entitled to obtain the procedure.  Because of this, pregnant people are forced to seek alternative methods which can be dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming.  In my next post, I will write about the abortion underground, abortion tourism, and the incidence of abortions in Poland, both legal and illegal.
[Updated to include gender-neutral pronouns, as women are not the only ones that have abortions]

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ladyjunia
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 22:33:29

    This is a disgusting post, lady. As a proud Pole, I am glad we don’t have abortion like you godless heathens in America, abortion is murder. No one forces you to have a baby, just don’t have sex or use birth control, are you an animal or a human? As we say in Polish, kurwa ty


  2. Trackback: The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning « my life as a feminista

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