It is hard to believe that in a country in the heart of the European Union, the health, human rights, and value of women’s lives are still up for debate. But, here we are. On October 22, the highest court in Poland said loud and clear: “The woman’s comfort is not a reason for ‘killing the unborn child.’” The right to abortion in the case of severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable, lethal illness of the fetus, was declared inconsistent with the Polish Constitution.
Not a single word was spoken in the defence of women. Yet, the court is set to enshrine a full range of human rights, including the right to life, to an embryo and later the fetus. In the words of the MPs from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, the fetus has the right to baptism and funeral, and the right to die in its mother's arms.
I now know my government sees me as a human incubator, without any rights or voice if I need to terminate a pregnancy in case of severe genetic defects or pregnancies that put my life at risk. Polish women now have no right to put an end to their own suffering and pain - and to the suffering and pain of the fetus. This extreme ruling could force thousands of Polish women to go through the unforgettable trauma of giving birth, and watching children die in extreme pain soon afterward if the child was born alive.
Since Friday October 23, there has been a flood of calls from devastated women to a hotline run by my organisation, the Federation for Women and Family Planning, or Federa. Sometimes they are unable to speak a word through their tears. I hear their crying, filled with pain, and they are asking for help.
This week, we received a call from a woman who passed the phone to the man, who explained their situation. “My wife, my partner, received the results of prenatal tests. She has a referral for legal abortion because the fetus has severe genetic defects,” he said. “But now, we have no idea what to do now, or whom to turn to. I am helpless. My wife has been sitting completely frozen for several hours, with a few moments of screaming and crying with despair, unbelievable devastation and pain. We have two small children. I beg you, help us”.
We have also received calls from women who were already in hospitals and are now being discharged - even though the procedures have already been scheduled. Hospitals and doctors are afraid of the consequences and possible punishment.
In the midst of it all, I do everything to help given the court’s ruling is not binding until it enters into a publication called the Journal of Laws this week. Federa’s lawyers are writing legal opinions to help change the court’s mind. We answer people’s calls for help and send them to hospitals hoping doctors may still be willing to help. I appeal to the city authorities and the ombudsperson for patients’ rights. In the last few weeks, we managed to restore the law in several cities. Stressed and scared women could, for now at least, return to hospitals. There is still time to save women from suffering though not much remains.
If the ruling becomes binding, hospitals will stop providing legal abortions. Women will be deprived from their reproductive rights unless they are economically privileged enough to be able to buy them by traveling abroad. However, in the time of COVID-19 restrictions, even going to clinics abroad may not be an accessible option. Research has brutally proved that making abortion illegal does not reduce their number - it only puts women’s life and health at risk.
Women without access to information, without money, without a support network, may try dangerous methods themselves or turn to unsafe underground abortion. We are doing everything possible to avoid tragedy. We provide even more on-duty gynaecologists on our hotline. We provide full information and the addresses of European clinics. We protect the privacy of our cases. Yet, we still provide information and support to women anonymously. We are there for all women.
Yesterday (Friday) marked the eighth day of mass protests of women and men supporting a movement to overturn the court’s ruling. The outrage on the streets is fully valid, is growing rapidly every day and it cannot be silenced. On Thursday, there were 450 demonstrations with half a million of people in attendance. A recent poll by Kantar shows that 73 per cent of Polish people are against the Court's ruling. Only 13 per cent would like to restrict abortion law. And, what the government did not predict, the vast majority, at about 60 per cent, are in favour of liberalisation of abortion regulations. The ruling against women is also against the will of Polish society.
The court’s ruling goes against international law, too. In the case K.L vs Peru, the UN Human Rights Committee found that forcing the woman to continue a pregnancy even though the fetus was anencephalic and would not survive outside of the womb violated not only the right to health and private life, but also the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The Constitutional Tribunal in Poland has just legalised the torture of women and that is hardly an exaggeration.
We will not stop fighting for women’s fundamental rights - the right to legal and safe abortion, the right to make decisions about our own bodies, our own lives. We are publicly declaring that if even one woman is harmed by unsafe abortion, we will hold the Polish state accountable. Just as we always have.
Dear government, see you on the streets. See you in the courts. See you at the international human rights bodies. If you are unable to guarantee women’s human rights, we will fight back. We promise.
- Krystyna Kacpura is Executive Director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Poland
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