Olga* discovered she was pregnant in the loos at her university. It was 2014 and she was just 22-years-old. “I panicked and I started crying because it was a shock. I knew I had to have an abortion and it was terrifying,” she remembers. She lived in Poland, where abortion access was then only legal in three scenarios: in cases of rape or incest, in cases where the mother’s life was at risk, and in cases of foetal abnormalities. Since then, the latter scenario has also been outlawed.
Olga’s pregnancy didn’t fall under any of these categories. The questions started racing in her mind: where would she have to go to get the procedure done? How much would it cost? Where was she going to find the money? The man who’d gotten her pregnant refused to help Olga organise her trip, and she felt alone and scared; the stress causing her to skip lectures.
“It was impossible for me to cover the cost,” Olga explains. She remembers borrowing from a friend to pay for the procedure, money it would take months for her to pay back. After sourcing the funds, Olga enlisted a friend to drive her, making the seven-hour journey to Slovakia overnight, in order to avoid spending extra money on accommodation.
“We reached the hospital around six or seven in the morning. I was put into bed. They took a blood test and I felt very dizzy and fainted,” Olga remembers. The combination of pressure, a tiring journey and an empty stomach had made her pass out. After the procedure, Olga woke up in shock, confused about where she was, crying and with a long journey home still ahead of her.
Mara Clarke is the founder of the UK-based Abortion Support Network, which supports Polish people and others from across Europe who’ve found themselves in a similar situation to Olga by funding and organising abortions. She points out that, unlike Olga’s situation, the majority of women seeking an abortion already have children, which can make travelling even more complicated. “You find out [you’re pregnant] and immediately you have this clock… you’re scrambling for money and childcare.”
The stigma around abortions in Poland means that feelings of stress and fear are often compounded by feelings of shame. It’s not uncommon for people to whisper on the phone when seeking support, terrified someone will overhear. Sometimes, people wait too long to reach out, meaning their pregnancy falls outside of the legal limits for termination. The UK has the latest legal limit in Europe of 24 weeks.
“We had two cases of very, very young girls [one of whom was Polish], who didn’t reach out until it was too late and that was really hard,” Mara recalls. Both girls had to continue their pregnancies.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party appears to have no sympathy for those forced into unwanted pregnancies. They have consistently worked to roll back abortion rights, the rights of LGBTQ+ people, as well as Poland’s democratic freedoms. Their influence over the Polish juridical system meant that in October 2020, a Constitutional Tribunal declared abortions in cases of foetal defects as unconstitutional. So far, the ruling is blamed for having caused the death of at least two women. Earlier this year, Agnieszka Torbus died after her doctors refused to abort her foetus, even after its heart had stopped.
This almost complete ban on abortion didn’t happen overnight. Poland’s previous, authoritarian regime – within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union – was one of the first to legalise abortion in the 1950s. In fact, during these years women from western Europe were coming to Poland for abortions. The origins of today’s restrictions lie in Poland’s democratic reforms at the end of the last century when the Catholic church grew in influence. When this initial rollback of rights was announced, over a million people signed a petition requesting a vote on this issue. However, this was denied by those in government – very few of whom were women – and since trust in Poland’s new democratic leaders was high, there was no significant societal pushback.
But if there was little resistance then, the further rollback of rights now has galvanised people into action, with activist groups forming across Europe. They provide people with information, direct them to places they can buy safe abortion pills, and help with any and all of the logistical elements of getting an abortion abroad, no matter how small. Some also fund abortions for those who can’t afford them by, for example, regularly organising Go Fund Me pages.
“There wasn’t really any discussion regarding what we should do. We started and we were just like ‘How do we do it?’ It was a really quick decision,” explains activist Marta Machalowska. It was after the new restrictions of the Constitutional Tribunal were announced in October 2020 that Marta, who was working at a big multinational corporation in Prague, started connecting with others on social media. Within two months, they had organised themselves into an informal collective, Cziocia Czesia. Based in Czechia – where abortion is legal up to the 12th week of pregnancy in most cases – the group began helping people cross the border from Poland.
Amid the pandemic, when Europe was locking down, it created hurdles every time someone got in touch. “It was really logistically complicated to find the best way to come to Czechia, whether it is by public transport, or train, by bus, or by car,” says Marta. “Then what to do? All the hotels are closed, where do you stay?”
Despite these mounting barriers, Gosia – an activist from the Berlin-based Ciocia Basia who asked to keep her full name hidden – is adamant that, as she puts it, “when there is a will, there is a way”. Activist groups across Europe work together to ensure no one is turned away, and no one is left alone with the burden of an unwanted pregnancy. Some groups accompany people to the procedures and provide accommodation in volunteer homes. They don’t quiz people on their reasons for getting an abortion and advocate for gender-neutral, inclusive language.
“We call it just radical empathy. Whatever you need, we will help you with it, we will give you the information, but the decision rests with you,” Gosia explains. She recalls supporting a woman step-by-step through the complex minutiae of German abortion bureaucracy, only for the woman to change her mind just before the procedure. For Gosia, this was an important learning experience: “This is the thing, it’s your body […] and you have the right to decide what you do with it.”
Many of the activist groups bear the moniker “ciocia” – Polish for ‘aunty’ – and are united under the umbrella of Abortion Without Borders, which helps them collaborate and work around Poland’s laws. Abortion Without Borders connects organisations doing work on the ground and in some cases supports with funding. The group also runs an information helpline in Poland, which signposts people to activists groups in different countries. While providing information about abortion is not criminalised in Poland, assisting someone to get one is. This is where the other affiliated groups can step in, providing practical support from abroad, without the risk of being prosecuted by the Polish courts.
There is clearly enormous demand for the service Abortion Without Borders is offering. Since the Polish Abortion Without Borders helpline opened in December 2019 to the end of December 2021, it had direct calls from 11,950 people. Between 21 January 2020 (the date of the tribunal ruling being enacted) and 21 January 2021, 1544 were supported by Abortion Without Borders activists to travel from Poland for an abortion to another country.
While activists are doing what they can to change societal attitudes, the prospects for legal change remain negligible. Polish legal scholar Monika Płatek emphasises that Poland’s judicial system is no longer truly independent, instead, it often does the bidding of the ruling Law and Justice party, as was seen in the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal. Monika believes that the steady erosion of rights in Poland over the last thirty years is not only damaging to women and minority groups but also to Poland’s international standing and democracy. “Equality is not an invention of the European Union because they are good, it is an invention of the European Union because it is the way to thrive and survive,” she says. “Either we save ourselves or not.”
Despite huge turnouts at pro-choice protests in Poland in the last few years, activists also remain pessimistic about a change to the law any time soon. Many are also sceptical of the opposition party, believing that changing abortion law isn’t high on their list of priorities, even if they were to be voted into power in 2023.
But for many activists, helping individuals access abortions keeps the feelings of total powerlessness at bay. “I won’t be able to change the system but I can help people,” says Gosia. “Maybe I won’t be able to help everyone, but I can help a few.”
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity
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