“My Body, My Decision”: Polish Women’s Fight to Legalize Abortion

Sofia Lopez Simpson is a second year International Relations student. Her hobbies and interests include playing the guitar and spending hours making spotify playlists.

“Her heart was beating too!” were the angry chants from Polish protesters in November 2021, after Izabela, a 22 weeks pregnant woman died of sepsis because she was refused treatment by doctors not wanting to break Poland’s strict abortion laws. This case has consequently led to public and international outrage with protests nationwide demanding the legalization of abortion.

Though the doctors treating Izabela’s case are being investigated, this is not enough to grant justice to all the women who are badly affected by the current abortion laws in Poland, especially in view of Poland’s far-right government blaming Izabela’s death on a medical error rather than on the strict abortion laws.

However, public outrage on Poland’s abortion laws is not a new phenomenon. There has been an ongoing attack on women’s rights by the Polish government, starting with the 2020 court ruling that nearly banned abortion in Poland completely (only allowed in cases of rape, incest or when pregnancy threatens mother’s health or life). This was of great concern because the ruling came while Covid-19 travel restrictions made it practically impossible and costly for women to seek abortions abroad.

Attempts to tighten this law were made in October 2021 when the Constitutional Court accused the 1993 law allowing abortion due to fetal abnormalities of being unconstitutional. This would render 98% of abortions carried out in 2019 would be considered unconstitutional. 

The conservative nature of the ruling party and the influence of religion have deeply affected the decisions on abortion in Poland, wherein organizations such as Abortion Without Borders have shown their support against this unjust law. Since the victory of the Law and Justice Party in 2015, the Polish government has attempted to restrict the sexual and reproductive rights of its citizens, heavily affecting millions of Polish women. In 2016, the government tried to draft a bill banning abortion, which was turned down after nationwide protests. 

The decision-making process of the party in power is arguably affected by the Roman Catholic Church’s influence on the government, as the government has argued that abortion is against Poland’s faith.  Although the nature of the party and the impact of religion explain why these strong laws were put in place, it is important to highlight a recent poll by Wirtualna Polska (a Polish news website) that demonstrated that 75% of Poles support less strict abortion laws,showing the strong favour of the people for the government to reduce their restrictions on abortion. Moreover, this psychological toll on women has led them to make decisions based on whether God will forgive them rather than for their own health. Approximately 200,000 women have abortions illegally or travel abroad for the procedure every year. In this way, abortions will continue with or without a law, and legalization can contribute to preventing any more deaths. 

The strict abortion laws have led to national anger and rising support for organizations such as Abortion Without Borders. Poland has experienced the biggest protests since the fall of communism as protesters take to the street over their belief that more women will die unless the abortion laws are changed. Gabriela Stepniak, a protester, expressed her indignation by stating, “I want us to have our basic rights, the right to decide about our bodies, the right to decide what we want to do and if we want to bear children and in what circumstances to have children.” Despite protesters receiving daily death threats from far-right groups encouraged by the government to mobilize and use violence against protesters, they have said they will not stop until something is done which is perhaps why the government and police are reacting so aggressively as they fear they are losing their grip over their power. Since not everyone in Poland is able to travel to get an abortion, women heavily rely on organizations such as Abortion Without Borders– a coalition of 6 European organizations helping women in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Malta, Gibraltar and Poland who need to travel to get abortions. Abortion Without Borders has helped 34,000 women in Poland gain access to abortions and is becoming more popular. Karolina Więckiewicz, a lawyer with Abortion Without Borders emphasized the importance of aiding women seeking an abortion and letting them know they are not alone even if the government fails to support them!

The international community has also voiced their outrage at the strict abortion laws in Poland. The United Nations Human Rights Council has said that the Polish government is obliged to protect pregnant women and should not impose punishments on women having an abortion or on doctors providing the service. However, Deputy Foreign Minister, Pawel Jablonski, has responded by denying that abortion is a human right under international law. The debate is not just about the right to abort, but also about women being denied their dignity and health by their own government, who should be enhancing these, but are rather denying them access to essential reproductive healthcare.

Although the Polish government made some concessions after the protests such as allowing abortions in cases where a baby will die after birth, Izabela’s death and Poland’s health ministry’s latest legal regulations on abortion still undermine women’s rights, encouraging women to take extreme measures in seeking an abortion. Some protesters are hopeful that Poland will follow Ireland in legalizing abortion by calling the death of Izabela the “Irish moment”; however, everyday women in Poland still wake up with fear that a stricter law on abortion will be imposed.