The Price of Democracy in Illegal Abortions

In this guest post, Maria Pawlowska looks at how the transition from socialism to democracy has impacted reproductive health in Poland. In the absence of both evidence-based sex education and access to safe and affordable contraceptives, Maria illustrates that the transition has effectively delegalized abortions, shifted the discourse surrounding reproductive rights to mirror the sentiments of the extreme political right, and ultimately placed the lives of Polish women hugely at risk. Maria is a healthcare analyst with a passion for reproductive health and gender issues in health care provision. Maria has a PhD from Cambridge, where she was a Gates scholar, and has worked with the Global Poverty Project and RESULTS UK.

When one thinks of the end of communism in Eastern Europe, a number of images usually come to mind: the fall of the Berlin wall, freedom, people hugging and dancing, liberty, smiles, Lech Walesa’s iconic moustache and Michail Gorbachov’s birth-marked forehead. And these are all accurate. What we don’t think of are back alley abortions, lack of access to contraception, women dying in hospitals because doctors would not abort pregnancies which endangered them – and finally ended their lives. Unfortunately, these are just as accurate.

One giant leap for civil rights…

Democracy is a great thing, or rather, in the words of Winston Churchill – “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Poland has tried two regimes in the last 50 years or so, and there isn’t much debate about it – a democratic sovereign country is a nicer place to live than a “socialist” state with  close “friendly ties” to the Soviet Union. A lot of things have undeniably changed for the better: people don’t end up in jail for speaking up against the government; the police don’t shoot at peaceful protestors and the state doesn’t blame minorities for bad policy outcomes. However, not all the changes have been for the better.

…and one huge step backward for reproductive rights

After the death of Stalin, the communist regime in Poland become markedly more ”citizen friendly”. One of the changes was legalizing abortion. The exact number of abortions conducted since 1956 when they first became widely available is unknown. However, there are some data. Less than 10 years after the law was introduced – in 1962 – 272 000 women had a legal abortion. The communist government also legalized contraception, however chemical and barrier methods were neither very safe nor widely available, thus for many women abortion – by necessity – was the main means of controlling fertility. Years of “socialist” government accustomed Polish society to the notions of evidence-based contraception and, in case it fails, abortion. And so the people, especially women, of Poland were in for a surprise when 1989 rolled around and they woke up in a country with a democratically elected government which gave them the right to vote in fair elections but took away the right to decide about their bodies.

About us, without us

The 1989 negotiations between the socialist government and the democratic opposition are – viewed as a huge success – and rightly so. No blood was shed, no guns fired – the transition was peaceful, democratic and…conducted almost entirely by men who were counselled by the Catholic Church.

Lech Wałęsa, the first democratically elected president of Poland
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Connomorah

The potpourri of intellectuals, labour activists and shipyard workers did not think reproductive rights were important enough to haggle with the Church over, so they quickly and quietly agreed to demands of effectively delegalizing abortion. Initially it was supposed to be a package deal – instead of widely available abortions, the people of democratic Poland were supposed to get evidence-based sexual education in schools and state refunded contraception. Surprise, surprise… that never happened.

Sorry state of affairs

Currently, Poland has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world. What is more, it is one of a handful of countries to have changed it in the past decade in order to further limit access to legal abortion. In order to get an abortion legally, the life or health of the women must be seriously endangered or the foetus must have severe developmental abnormalities. Abortion is also legal if the pregnancy is a result of crime. This is accompanied by a lack of sexual education in schools, no public assistance with costs of contraception and relatively high costs and low availability of most forms of contraceptives (IUDs, pill, implants). There isn’t much one can expect from such a combination…

Officially there were only 583 abortions in Poland in 2010. Just to put this figure in context: Poland has 36 million citizens. Out of those over 11 million are women between the ages of 18 and 59. If these statistics were true, Poland would be an international phenomenon: the number of abortions officially conducted in Poland annually is less than a seventh of the number of abortions conducted in America daily! However, what the number really means is that there is a huge abortion underground. At a recent conference held in the Polish parliament, the number of illegal abortions conducted in Poland annually was judged to be at least 200, 000 (and that’s after the exclusion of “abortion tourists” who are well-off enough to leave the country and have a safe, humane abortion in Germany or the UK) (a short piece about this conference in English can be foundhere).

Keep your morals off my choice

Since 1989, a lot of good things happened to people in Poland, but I would argue that in the domain of reproductive health we definitely got the short end of the stick. And I don’t mean just the women – because reproductive health is an issue for all sexes. Yes, women are more affected by legislators who see it as their role to be moral agents preventing women from making “wrong” decisions about their reproductive lives. However, in Poland it’s also the boys and men who suffer from a lack of access to impartial sexual education and non-faith based information about subjects such as pregnancy prevention and masturbation. Since 1989, abortion and contraception are no longer taken for granted. What is more, they are now widely seen as ‘immoral and wrong’ rather than as “informed choices” which should be made by individuals. The vocal extreme political right minority has managed to shift the discussion about reproductive rights to revolve around terms such as “baby-killers” and comparisons to Hitler instead of regular peoples’ decisions about how to live their lives.

Poles still educate themselves about sex, they still use contraception, women still get abortions. However, prior to 1989 these things happened in doctors’ offices and schools. Now information is gained mostly from the internet, contraception is bought at a high price in a pharmacy and abortions happen in unclean private flats using unsterile equipment and under the threat of jail time. Some of the changes that happened since 1989 really weren’t so great…