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Outcry in Poland over abortion law

February 5, 2023

Two Polish hospitals refused to terminate the pregnancy of an underage rape victim. The case has sparked controversy over the country's restrictive legislation, with women's rights activists insisting it must be eased.

A young woman with long brown hair, wearing a black bandana as a mask, holds up her right hand in a clenched fist
Poland has one of Europe's most restrictive abortion lawsImage: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

A scandal is raging in Polish politics and in the media, concering the shocking case of a 14-year-old rape victim. The girl, who is from the Podlaskie region in northeastern Poland and has mental disabilities, was raped by her own uncle and became pregnant as a result. She was unaware of her condition, but her aunt noticed it and tried to help her get an abortion.

Although the girl had written confirmation from the public prosecutor that she was pregnant as the result of a crime, which gave her the right to a legal abortion, two hospitals in the region refused to carry out the procedure. The province of Podlaskie on the Belarusian border is a bastion of the right-wing conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has been in power in Poland since 2015.

'Conscience clause' gives doctors the right to refuse

"The doctors invoked the 'conscience clause' as justification for their refusal," the weekly magazine Polityka reported on Wednesday. Poland's restrictive abortion law allows doctors to refuse to carry out an abortion if it is against their religious beliefs. This was what happened in this case. The hospital brusquely turned the girl and her aunt away, telling them to "get out of here." "We don't know where to go," they are said to have replied, only to be told: "That's not our problem."

It's not that simple, though. According to the rules, a doctor who refuses to carry out an abortion must name another doctor who can take on the procedure. The conscience clause can only be invoked by individuals; it cannot apply to an entire hospital. Polityka says this was nonetheless ignored.

Several women holding placards and banners stand on the steps in front of a courthouse.
Activists demonstrating in October 2022 outside a court where a woman was tried for aiding and abetting abortionImage: Monika Sieradzka/DW

As for so many women, their last resort was the FEDERA Foundation for Women and Family Planning, who came to their rescue. Time was of the essence: "She was almost at 12 weeks. We had to act quickly," Krystyna Kacpura, FEDERA's executive director, explained in an interview with the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on Wednesday. "The termination was carried out successfully in Warsaw."

Kacpura refused to give journalists any further details about the girl. "The family lives in a small community. She doesn't want to become the target of attacks," she explained. Instead, she called on the authorities to examine the situation in all hospitals in the region, and criticized the fact that the medical profession had become "political." "Instead of caring for patients' health, doctors are hiding behind the conscience clause and the law," she said.

Health minister appalled

Meanwhile, the Polish health minister Adam Niedzielski has also weighed in on the issue. "We are appalled by this case; here our response is unequivocal," he told reporters earlier this week, and described the girl's struggle to get an abortion as "unacceptable." Niedzielski announced that there would be an investigation into case.

Women's rights groups and the political opposition are once again clamoring for the relaxation of Poland's abortion law, which makes an abortion almost impossible to obtain.

A stationary van, guarded by two policemen, carrying placards with a slogan in Polish and an image of a dead, bloody fetus
Opponents of abortion are using shock tactics in pushing for a total ban Image: Monika Sieradzka/DW

The "conscience clause," which many doctors make use of to avoid potential prosecution, is "barbaric and inhuman" and must be abolished, said Katarzyna Kotula from the left-liberal party Wiosna. And the center-left politician Barbara Nowacka from the Civic Coalition (KO) announced in the Sejm (the Polish parliament) that the opposition would be tabling a bill to abolish the "conscience clause."

Stricter abortion laws

In 2020, Poland's constitutional court declared it illegal to abort seriously malformed fetuses, paving the way for a strengthening of the already very restrictive abortion law. At present, termination is only legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape, or if the mother's life is in danger. In practice, even these exceptions are not always observed, with doctors claiming that their religious convictions prevent them from carrying out abortions. If they perform an illegal procedure, they face the possibility of up to three years in jail.

After the strengthening of the abortion law, the number of official terminations dropped from 1,076 in 2020 to 107 the following year. FEDERA, however, claims that 150,000 procedures are performed each year outside the official system. "No restrictive system can stop women from having abortions if they are determined to terminate the pregnancy," says FEDERA's director Krystyna Kacpura. "The only question is whether they do so in safe or not-so-safe conditions."

A city square at nighttime, with lit candles on the ground in the shape of a heart
A 30-year-old woman died of septic shock in Poznan after doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy until the fetus's heart stopped beatingImage: JAKUB ORZECHOWSKI/Agencja Wyborcza/REUTERS

According to information from the European Parliament on November 6, 2022, since the law was tightened, six women have died in Poland as a direct consequence of their pregnancies not being terminated.

Yet hardliners from Poland's pro-life movement are still unsatisfied with the strict abortion law that is currently in place. Their leader, Kaja Godek, wants to ban all information about abortion options. A bill signed by 150,000 people proposes that producing and disseminating such information should be punishable by two years in prison. The title of the draft legislation: "Abortion is murder."

This piece was originally published in German.

Abortion in Europe scorned, concealed, prohibited

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects