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Police at the hospital: Abortion battle heats up in Poland

July 23, 2023

The case of a humiliating police operation in response to a woman who’d taken an abortion pill has intensified debate over whether Poland’s abortion laws have gone too far.

Women at a pro-choice rally in Warsaw, Poland on June 14, 2023.
Protesters in Warsaw in June: "My body, my choice" is a sentiment shared by many Poles in response to the country's increasingly rigid abortion lawsImage: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, likes to surround himself with women at campaign events. He courts them in the old Polish manner with a kiss on the hand, but such gestures belie the fact that his right-wing nationalist party is actually at war with the country's women.

An ever closer alliance between the Polish government and the Catholic Church has led to a radical tightening of abortion laws in recent years. In 2020, the PiS-controlled Constitutional Court removed the risk of serious fetal malformation as a condition allowing for legal abortion, creating a climate of fear and mistrust among doctors and women.

Protesters hold signs naming the women who have died as a result of Poland's abortion laws
The laws have already caused the deaths of multiple women, named here at the protest in Warsaw in June Image: Kacper Pempel/REUTERS

The latest incident related to the rigid abortion ban became public this week, though it took place in late April: A young Polish woman from Krakow named Joanna had taken an abortion pill because she feared that pregnancy would endanger her health. A few days later she consulted her psychologist about persistent anxiety. The psychologist feared that her patient might have suicidal intentions and alerted the emergency services. Shortly thereafter, not just an emergency medical team, but also a police patrol informed by the emergency service showed up at Joanna's apartment door.

Harassment at the hospital

But the real drama began after she was admitted to a military hospital. Although the patient denied suicidal intent, police officers confiscated her laptop and demanded that she hand over her cell phone. They surrounded and monitored her, obstructing medical care despite protests by doctors.

Fighting for abortion rights - Polish women’s struggle

The harassment continued after the patient was transferred to another hospital for further examination. Two female police officers who were called in asked the patient to strip naked, squat and cough. "I was still bleeding and refused to take off my panties," Joanna told broadcaster TVN in a tearful interview on July 20. "It was so humiliating," she added. "I felt powerless."

The state prosecutor's office has launched an investigation into her case, citing, among other things, Article 152, Section 2 of the Criminal Code, which states that anyone who helps or persuades a pregnant woman to terminate her pregnancy faces a prison sentence of up to three years.

An 'organized witch hunt'

"I have repeatedly confirmed that I bought the abortion pill myself online and that no one helped me do it," Joanna told TVN. It is not a punishable offense to personally buy an abortion drug and take it in Poland. Only aiding and abetting an abortion is prohibited.

"Nevertheless, the police officers kept talking about a crime," said Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer for the FEDERA Foundation for Women and Family Planning who is now representing Joanna.

"It was the magic word 'abortion' that encouraged the overzealous police officers to carry out this large-scale operation," said psychologist Maja Herman.

European MEP Robert Biedron at an anti-government protest in Warsaw on June 4, 2023
Robert Biedron, a European MEP for the social democratic Left Party, during an anti-government protest in Warsaw in early June Image: Klaudia Radecka/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Member of the social democratic New Left party and European Union parliamentarian Robert Biedron spoke of an "organized witch hunt" against women and a "barbaric abortion law,” in addition to "police officers who wanted to ingratiate themselves with PiS."

Police commander weighs in

In light of the media furor surrounding the case, the typically taciturn police commander-in-chief Jaroslaw Szymczyk spoke out on Thursday. "The dramatic situation in which Joanna found herself was not the fault of the police," he said, adding that all police measures were aimed at protecting her and other potential customers of abortion pills.

Jaroslaw Szymczyk, Poland's police commander-in-chief
Jaroslaw Szymczyk, Poland's police commander-in-chief, denies wrongdoing by officers in the case Image: Artur Widak/NurPhot/picture alliance

Confiscating her laptop and mobile phone were intended to help identify who sold the abortion pill and rule out the possibility that it could have harmful health consequences. Asking the patient to undress in front of officers also had a purpose, he said, explaining that they wanted to ensure that she had not hidden any items that could have been used to harm herself.

Tusk calls for protest march

Donald Tusk, head of the country's largest opposition party Civic Platform (PO), has also joined the debate. "Joanna was humiliated. But it's not just her," he said.

Since 2020, at least six women have died in Poland because doctors performed a medically necessary abortion either too late or not at all, citing fear of consequences or reasons of conscience, according to research by the 2022 European Parliament.

"A PiS-ruled Poland is not just about the prosecutor, police and the priest coming to the hospital or gynecologist's office and carrying out cruel checks that can lead to tragedy. It is also about the appetites of Kaczynski and [Justice Minister] Ziobro to brutally intervene in our – in your – lives," Tusk said.

He called for a "march of a million hearts" on October 1 so that Poles can show that they no longer want PiS in power. "No one should doubt that the good people are in the majority," Tusk said. On June 4, about half a million people demonstrated in Warsaw against government policies.

Slawomir Mentzen, head of Confederation, an alliance of far-right parties in Poland
Slawomir Mentzen, head of Confederation, an alliance of far-right parties in PolandImage: Cezary Aszkielowicz/Agencja Wyborcza/REUTERS

Fear of repressive abortion regulations is likely to grow. The far-right political alliance Confederation Liberty and Independence has garnered increased approval ratings for months, with the latest polls putting the nationalist groups involved at 15 percent or more. In 2019, Confederation leader Slawomir Mentzen called for a total ban on abortion, with prison sentences of up to ten years for both patients and doctors.

Political observers do not rule out the possibility that PiS could form a coalition with Confederation after the upcoming parliamentary elections in October.

This article orginally appeared in German.

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