Poland's Latest Anti-Abortion Crackdown Targets Hospitals and Women
Sian Norris and Claudia Torrisi report on prosecutors demanding a hospital hand over data of patients who have had legal abortions
Authorities in Poland have been requesting details of women who had abortions for reasons of foetal defects in the months following the Constitutional Tribunal decision in October which ruled such procedures were unconstitutional.
Previous to the ruling, abortions were banned in Poland and only permitted in cases of threat to mother’s life, rape and incest, fatal foetal abnormality and foetal defect. Of the approximately 1,000-2,000 legal abortions in Poland each year, the majority were permitted under the final exception.
The authorities are said to be collecting data from the hospital in Białystok for the “purposes of pre-trial investigation”. Although terminations for foetal defects were thought to be legal between the October decision and the new law being published in January 2021, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna has discovered that the prosecution “has doubts” about their legality.
According to reports in the Dziennik Gazeta Prawna (DGP), the prosecutor’s office wrote in a letter “this is an extremely urgent matter!!!”
They have asked a hospital in Białystok to provide all medical records of patients who have terminated a pregnancy as well as data on patients who had an abortion for reasons of fatal foetal abnormality. The hospital told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna that “it collects data from clinics and analyzes them for the possibility of forwarding them to the prosecution.”
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The move came after the anti-abortion group Pro-Right To Life Foundation (Pro Prawo do Życia) submitted a notification to the authorities questioning the legality of abortions taking place between 22 October 2020 and 27 January 2021.
This contradicts what healthcare providers themselves were led to believe. When the tribunal decided to extend the ban last autumn, hospital directors asked whether it would apply to women who already had terminations planned. Most experts interpreted the law as only coming into effect on 27 January 2021. The Ministry of Health told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna that abortion on the grounds of foetal defects was possible until the publication of the Constitutional Tribunal judgment.
However, according to the Pro-Right To Life Foundation, there is a legal precedent from 2016 that states a judgement, such as that given by the Constitutional Tribunal in October, is subject to immediate publication.
A Chilling Effect
Healthcare professionals and campaigners are concerned this investigation is designed to have a chilling effect on the medical profession and make doctors think twice before performing future abortions when there is a threat to the mother’s health or fatal foetal abnormality.
Dr Mikołaj Małecki from the Jagiellonian University told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna that he believes the decision from the Prosecutor in response to the notification from the Pro-Right To Life Foundation “is a step towards radical enforcement of the tribunal’s decision to tighten the abortion grounds.”
Doctors who perform abortions outside the exceptions face imprisonment and face suspension from practising.
The anti-abortion group Ordo Luris – a driving force behind the October ruling – have implied that healthcare workers and campaigners could claim a foetal defect may threaten a mother’s life and therefore circumvent the ban. Threat to mother’s life is now one of three remaining exceptions where abortion is legal.
For this reason, the group sent a memo to hospitals reminding them the Constitutional Tribuunal had found abortion on grounds of foetal defect unconstitutional.
Such actions create a further chilling effect where doctors who are concerned that they may be accused of breaking the ban will err on the side of caution and fail to allow terminations when a woman’s life is at risk.
A Wider Crackdown
It is difficult to ascertain how many illegal abortions take place in Poland each year, with estimates ranging from between 10,000 and 150,000.
The women’s rights organisation Federa has reported hearing from increasing numbers of women who have been summoned to the police after purchasing medical pills online for self-administered abortion.
A spokesperson from women’s rights group Kobiety w Sieci said “nobody is being arrested because of buying the abortion pills.”
Federa has received emails from women who are being told to testify to the police about purchasing abortion pills, although women who have a home abortion are not criminally liable and therefore safe from prosecution. It’s another example of a chilling effect designed to intimidate women into continuing an unwanted pregnancy.
The rights organisation Women Help Women told Byline Times “abortion pill access is a lifeline for thousands of women in Poland and in very many cases the safest option.”
Kamila Ferenc from Federa told Polish newspaper Wysokie Obcasy that “I have the impression that some time ago someone at the top made a decision to start such a campaign.”
The organisation Abortion Dream Team told Byline Times that women are not being targeted for buying abortion pills but are instead targeting sites selling pills who don’t protect client data. They told us that “police are hearing those who used the services as witnesses to prove that these sites illegally sell drugs outside pharmacies and with no relevant concessions, permissions.” Abortion Dream Team also said “the proceedings seem to go also in this direction that these sites commit the crime of ‘aiding and abetting'”.
The authorities are also intensifying their intimidation of women human rights defenders. Leader of the Women’s Strike, Marta Lempart is facing prosecution and up to eight years in prison having been accused of assaulting a police officer and creating an epidemiological risk for participants of the pro-choice protests. Lempart is also accused of “publicly approving crimes of certain protesters during a radio interview, including destruction of facades of buildings or disruptions of worship.”
A New Hope?
Since the decision of the Constitutional Tribunal in October, women and their allies have led mass protests against abortion restrictions. They have done so in the face of alleged far-right violence and being accused of taking part in Satanic orgies by Father Rydzyk, head of the controversial right-wing Radio Maryja. Their protests were even portrayed by the ruling Law and Justice Party as an attack on the Catholic Church.
Now the opposition is proposing a new Bill that would allow women to have an abortion on demand up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
The draft act of the Citizens’ Committee of Legislative Initiative entitled “Legal Abortion. No Compromise” was launched at a press conference on 3 February and has the support of a range of women’s rights organisations including Federation for Women and Family Planning, Abortion Dream Team, Great Coalition for Equality and Choice, Women’s Rights Center and members of the Left.
The Bill also calls for the full decriminalisation of abortion and the right to abortion after 12 weeks in certain circumstances.
Members of the European Parliament have criticised the Polish Government’s decision to further restrict abortion. In a debate on Tuesday, Dutch MEP Samira Rafaela called the ban as “a lack of respect for women’s bodies” and said the Law and Justice (PiS) Party is an “anti-feminist and highly conservative party.”
German Green MEP Terry Reintke urged action, asking “what else has to happen so that we finally see true commitment from the European Commission for European values and for the fundamental rights of European citizens?”
They were joined by Polish opposition MEP Robert Biedroń who said “women in Poland deserve to have the same rights [as] women in Belgium or elsewhere.”
This article was updated at 12.45 on 12 February to include a comment from Abortion Dream Team.
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