By Alessandra Iellamo and Natasha Pearce
Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. In October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that women can terminate pregnancies only in cases of rape or incest, or if their life is in danger. More than 70,000 Polish women have been affected by this legislation. Since 2020, six women have died due to doctors’ refusal to terminate their pregnancies.
Polish youth protesting outside the Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw in 2021. Photo credits: Łukasz Korzeniowski
Polish youth are rising against this legislation and its harmful effects which has stood in place long before they were even born, not just in legislation but society.
One young woman who is not shying away from taking part in this battle is Julia Orlowska, a 20-year-old student at the University of Warsaw. She said it was empowering to attend the protests against the current abortion legislation.
Julia explained why this legislation is such a serious topic. “There are already victims of the new legislation.”
One of the legislation’s first known victims is Izabel Sajbor who was only thirty years old when she died last September from septic shock, at twenty-two weeks pregnant. The doctors waited for the fetus’ heartbeat to stop. Izabel died shortly after.
Earlier this year, in January, another woman, Agnieszka T. who was in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy died after the heartbeat of one foetus stopped and Polish physicians, wary of breaking the law, refused to carry out an abortion.
These young women’s deaths highlight the acute dangers of the current legislation, yet it appears that the government will not yield on this topic despite growing pressure from those opposed to it.
Julia believes that the legislation should be changed to at least being able to have access to abortion up until the second trimester. The European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights found that 70% of Polish society are in favour of having abortion up to twelve weeks of pregnancy without asking for a reason.
“Every woman has the right to choose what she does with her body. For me it is unacceptable that the government is imposing this on us.” said Julia.
Over the last couple of years, Poland’s youth has been protesting against the new legislation. Julia said this makes her happy because those are the people who will continue to try to change the situation in the country and possibly end up in politics.
Ewa Czarscha, a thirty-two-year-old graphic designer has been finding her voice through attending marches and protests. After one of the protests, Ewa received two fines for being present at the march, which she refused to pay as she felt she had the right to protest and to stand with the other women in Poland.
“At some point it was hard to leave, and we just simply couldn’t get out. They started taking us one by one by force.” she said.
Ewa was forced to present her ID in order for her to be released from the protests. However, days later police turned up at her door because she was a potential witness during the march.
“I was particularly scared as I was home alone, and I didn’t want to open the door.” she said, “they kept showing up and they even phoned my landlord to try and find me – I felt really pressured.”
The police told her she must go to the station to give a statement. Once at the station, they decided Ewa was not a witness but actually a suspect. The ordeal made her feel unsafe but eventually they found Ewa had done nothing wrong so now the case was closed.
We asked if this episode would prevent her from attending more protests.
She said, “it made me feel angrier. So, I will just keep going. None of us liked the situation but it made us feel more strongly about standing up for our beliefs.”Like other young women, Ewa finds the strict legislation dangerous when it comes to women’s health. “I am really angry about it and also scared. The government has changed the law numerous times without listening to people’s opinions. I’m scared of what they’re going to do next.”
“Women’s needs are invisible”
Vice President of FEDERA, Kamila Ferenc talks about women’s role in Poland and how their reproductive health is perceived in current society. Photo credits: Alessandra Iellamo.
Kamila Ferenc, the lawyer, and Vice president of FEDERA, the Foundation for Women Family Planning in Poland thinks that the access to basic gynaecological care is very poor and limited in the country and that women’s reproductive health is seen as something less important that’s not taken care of.
“Women are just pushed to the margin of the system. Women’s needs are still invisible in Poland in the law itself but also in the practice of enforcing the law which doesn’t secure the situations of the threat or risks to women’s life and health as it was in the case of Izabel,” she said.
FEDERA is a secretariat of the big association of feminist organisations in Poland, in the same coalition called Great Choice and Equality. Their mission is advocating for women’s rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights, providing legal and psychological assistance to women who seek access to reproductive health services. They actively participate in pro- women’s right activities on an international scale and work with different bodies within the European Parliament. They manage the advocacy on a national and international level and are responsible for the social monitoring of the situation in Poland.
FEDERA’s sign outside the office’s window. Photo credits: Alessandra Iellamo.
After the change in legislation took effect in 2021, FEDERA’s consultations tripled from previous years reaching up to 8,100 women in need. This included calls and emails which asked the organisation for help with abortion and access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Infographic by Natasha Pearce.
Many Polish women say they are tired of the government violating their basic reproductive and human rights, which they feel threatens both their safety and their dignity.
“More and more women just stop thinking about starting a family because they are too afraid that they can die or get some harmful consequences,” said Kamila. However, she doesn’t believe that this legislation affects young girls’ view of sex.
“Young girls have very modern progressive views, but they are not supported with proper information and education.” she said.
Gap in the curriculum
The majority of Poland’s youth, who are standing up for their sexual and reproductive health rights, are part of the large demographic across Poland who received little to no sex education. In Poland, sex education remains a non-compulsory subject in schools. Poland’s Minister of Education Przemysław Czarnek, is pushing for a bill which could give the government complete control over the curriculum, possibly eradicating the insignificant sex education that it currently in place.
Students at the University of Warsaw’s Language Campus expressed their concerns about the lack of sex education during their time in school. Julia Orlowska said her generation received ‘Preparation for Life’ classes rather than the typical education of sexual and reproductive health.
“These classes were often led by people who are not qualified enough who often will copy certain myths or stigma around certain topics.” she said.
“In secondary school we were taught that homosexuality or bisexuality is kind of a disease. It is kind of accepted but still a disease. It’s like this weird passive aggressive wording that I constantly hear.” she added.
Many students talked about how these classes created a stigma around young people having sex and experiencing sexual desires as they are taught with outdated information.
Julia Zukowska, 20, speaks about her experience with sexual education in school. Photo credits: Alessandra Iellamo.
Julia feels a darker impact from the gap in the curriculum when it comes to sex education.
“I think that the most dangerous thing is that a lot of young people are not aware of the dangers from STIs to even sexual assault. Many women I have met personally have been sexually assaulted and they don’t even know that it was sexual assault which clearly shows how there is a certain stigma around the topic.”
Julia’s classmate, Natalia Krempa, recalls that these types of classes were led by science teachers or religious figures such as nuns.
“We got hardly any important or significant information about sex life and everything that should be actually taught” she said, “they tried to influence our minds on the subject of sexuality many times.”
The small number of sex education lessons which students received were shrouded in religion.
“I also remember religion teachers talking about topics that weren’t related to religion. For example, they kept warning us against organisations like Hare Krishna,” said Natalia.
In particular, there is one memory of a class which sticks out for the student.
Natalia Krempa, 20, shares her experience with religion and sex education in school. Photo credits: Alessandra Iellamo.
“Our religion teacher once organised a survey about abortion. The first question was ‘do you think abortion should be legal?’. Then he gathered the responses. Then he asked a second question – ‘Do you think that killing unborn children should be legal?’. And then he gathered the answers. And of course, there was a certain difference in the answers which I remember myself being frustrated at that moment because of the manipulation that he had organised. They tried to influence our minds in ways that I didn’t like, even back then,” said Natalia.
She believes that these experiences can be harmful to how young people view sex as they grow up, “religion classes in my primary school really affected how I felt and how I felt guilty for things. I remember changing my outlook on what I did. I remember in a way that I was really afraid to not go to church on Sunday, that I would be the worst sinner and that would change something really important. I remember getting a feeling of guilt right there.”
Many people in Poland believe that the church should stay separate from politics.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center data, 70% of Poles consider that religion should be kept separate from government politics, with 25% supporting the view that the government should be involved in supporting religious values and beliefs. Only 28% of respondents within the same survey have stated that the government should provide financial support to the country’s Catholic Church, although 64% of Poles find Catholicism to be a key component of their national identity.
“I am personally for the separation of the church from politics. They really like to impose their ideas. Many priests, many church leaders are currently saying things that are really dangerous to young people that create a lot of stigma around LGBTQ+ communities and abortion.” said Julia. She explained that the Church has such an active role in Polish politics with events organised by the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) being held in churches.
Natalia says that the church is heavily influential due to its implementation of religion in daily life right from when you are young.
“Starting from the religion in schools and ending in the masses where you can sometimes hear things that aren’t very educational and do not do much good to the society. Poland is a very religious and strictly Christian country which does affect our outlook on the topic.” she said.
The young generation brings hope
Elections in Poland will take place in 2023, but the prospect of whether this will bring change to the legislation casts uncertainty over Polish women’s future.
Poland is looking to the young generation as the progressive movement who will make a change. The 20-year-old student Natalia feels hopeless for the possibility of change in Poland.
“I’m rather pessimistic about the situation because of course we are protesting but it’s super hard with the society and government we have right now. They are trying of course but not much can be done with the restrictions and the mentality we have in Poland.I think mostly older people are very conservative. They have a strong opinion on abortion that it should be prohibited in more situations,” she said.
Now that the discussion of abortion is in mainstream dialogue, it will be a major topic in the upcoming elections with many Polish citizens hoping to see a change of government.
But even if a change in the government was to happen in the next elections, FEDERA’s Vice President Kamila isn’t as hopeful that a new government will completely change the legislation Polish women currently face.
“There is a small hope, but I am not very optimistic,” she said.
“I know that before the Law and Justice took over, we still had problems with enforcing the law on abortion and other reproductive issues. The political establishment is very conservative. There is a huge patriarchal attitude among them,” she explains, “even if a new government is formed, we have a lot of work to do.”
Despite Poland’s ambivalence on the topic of abortion, Kamila, and her organisation FEDERA hope to see a change in her lifetime stating “we are in the middle rather than at the beginning of this process.”