Reproductive Rights in Post-Communist Poland

Before the fall of the iron curtain, the communist bloc in Europe, with the exception of Romania, held surprisingly liberal abortion laws. In the years following WWII, the communist regimes in Europe pursued an unprecedented policy of gender equality, giving women the right to vote, massively mobilizing them in the workforce, and instituting abortion laws that demonstrated a degree of liberalism, then unrivaled in the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union these laws in most ex-Communist countries were either kept in the original form or slightly changed, but nonetheless continued to provide easy access to abortion. But in the post-Soviet divergence, a resurgence of Catholic national identity in Poland has resulted in a regression in the provision of abortions.

In 2000, a Polish mother of two, Ms. A. Tysiąc applied for an abortion after her GP advised that it would worsen her already severe myopia. Her request was denied. Despite giving birth by caesarian section, her eyesight worsened dramatically and she ultimately filed criminal charges against the Warsaw Clinic’s head of Gynecology and Obstetrics who had denied her request. While the case was discontinued by the Warsaw district prosecutor, the European Court of Human Rights ruled 6 to 1 that Ms. Tysiac’s ‘Right to a Private Life’ had been violated. Ms. Tysiąc’s case is not unique, but one of many that has become emblematic of Poland’s long and convoluted history with reproductive health.

At the beginning of the 20th century, abortion was illegal under any circumstance in Poland. But in 1932, Poland enacted a code that legalized abortion in the cases of a criminal act, namely rape, incest, and underage sex. This was the first abortion law that condoned abortion in the case of a crime. The law remained on the books from 1932 until 1956. In 1956, the Polish Sejm (the lower house of parliament), in keeping with Communist Party orthodoxy, legalized abortions when women expressed “difficult leaving conditions”. During the 60s and 70s, abortion became freely available in both public hospitals and private clinics. While the Soviet system encouraged mothers to carry the child to term, the law left it to physicians to decide whether abortion should be performed and largely guaranteed easy access to the operation. However, in the last decade of Soviet rule, a rediscovery of Catholicism as a basis for national identity led to a growing conservative backlash against abortion.

Catholicism has deep roots in Poland, and even after nearly half a century of Soviet rule, the Vatican’s influence remained strong. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979 is credited with helping to ignite the Polish democracy movement, as well as a long-suppressed sense of Polish-Catholic identity. This resurgent Catholic faith contributed to the changing stance on abortion in Poland – it coincided with a period in which the Catholic Church was beginning to weigh in more heavily on the issue of abortion. In 1974, John Paul II also approved for publication the “Declaration on Abortion” in which the Church’s opposition to abortion is summarized by the “proposition that an individual’s right to life cannot be suspended by society or civil authority”. Shortly after the democratization of parliament, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches as well as the more conservative factions in government pushed for an abortion ban, and submitted a draft law intended to outlaw abortion altogether.

The left, however, pushed back. In January 1993, both camps compromised and enacted the “Law on family planning, protection of the human fetus and conditions for legal abortion” which effectively banned abortion except for the following reasons: (1) when the life of the woman is threatened by the pregnancy, (2) when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, and (3) when the fetus is severely malformed. Depending on the exact exemption being pursued, the right to abortion must be confirmed by either a physician or a prosecutor. Encouraging a woman to carry out an illegal abortion is a criminal act, but women themselves are not persecuted for illegal termination of pregnancy. To limit abortions, Poland offers extensive financial and medical assistance to mothers during and after their pregnancy, and runs programs for adoption in cooperation with the churches. The parliament enacted a modification to this law, adding that abortion is permitted in the cases of emotional or social distress, but the Polish Constitutional Court deemed this law unconstitutional and restored the 1993 law.

Shortly after the democratization of parliament, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches as well as the more conservative factions in government pushed for an abortion ban, and submitted a draft law intended to outlaw abortion altogether.

Despite the existence of legal exemptions that allow access to abortion, women face immense bureaucratic hurdles that impede their right to a safe abortion. In another case brought before the European Court of Human Rights, numerous hospitals denied 14-year-old P. an abortion despite the pregnancy being the product of rape and her having had an exemption granted by a public prosecutor. The national debate surrounding P.’s case lead to her harassment by anti-abortion groups and her being taken into state care on the grounds that her mother, S. was pressuring her to undergo the abortion. After petitioning the Ministry of Health, P. was allowed to get an abortion and S. retained custody of her daughter. In the wake of this high profile case, Amnesty International urged Poland to “take urgent steps to ensure women and girls have full access to sexual and reproductive health” A year later, Poland’s ombudsman Irena Lipowicz, in a report submitted to the Ministry of Health, said that Poland’s strict laws are “ineffective” in meeting the requirement of the European Court of Human Rights.

The laws have also failed to significantly curb abortion rates, having simply pushed Polish Women to undergo the procedure illegally, or travel abroad to seek safe and legal abortion. Wanda Nowicka, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, told the lawmakers in the Parliament in August 2010 that despite the official number of only several hundred abortions per year, they estimated the real number was around 150,000 abortions per year, of which10-15% are performed abroad.

Despite this, popular opinion in Poland is still largely supportive of anti-abortion laws. A public opinion poll conducted in 2013 by Poland’s Public Opinion Research Center found that 75% of the Poles agree with the current abortion ban, a jump from 69% in 2010. The debate about abortion in Poland is one of the most controversial and contested political issues. Backed by the Roman Catholic Church, right-wing parties and overwhelming public support, it seems unlikely that this law will be challenged or changed in the foreseeable future. Can Poland really protect the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women with its current policies or does it need to thoroughly reexamine and amend its legislation for greater protection?