May 17, 2011 in Health

New analysis published by the UK journal Reproductive Health Matters shows that the criminalisation of abortion in Poland has led to the development of a vast illegal private sector with no controls on price, quality of care or accountability. Since abortion became illegal in the late 1980s the number of abortions carried out in hospitals has fallen by 99%. The private trade in abortions is, however, flourishing, with abortion providers advertising openly in newspapers.

Women have been the biggest losers during this push of abortion provision into the clandestine private sector. The least privileged have been hardest hit: in 2009 the cost of a surgical abortion in Poland was greater than the average monthly income of a Polish citizen. Low-income groups are less able to protest against discrimination due to lack of political influence. Better-off women can pay for abortions generating millions in unregistered, tax-free income for doctors. Some women seek safe, legal abortions abroad in countries such as the UK and Germany.

“In the private sector, illegal abortion must be cautiously arranged and paid for out of pocket,” says Agata Chełstowska, the author of the research and a PhD student at the University of Warsaw. “When a woman enters that sphere, her sin turns into gold. Her private worries become somebody else’s private gain”. The Catholic Church, highly influential in predominantly Catholic Poland, leads the opposition to legal abortion.

Since illegality has monetised abortion, doctors have incentives to keep it clandestine, “Doctors do not want to perform abortions in public hospitals,” says Wanda Nowicka, Executive Director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning. “They are ready, however, to take that risk when a woman comes to their private practice. We are talking about a vast, untaxed source of income. That is why the medical profession is not interested in changing the abortionlaw.”

In several high profile cases, women and girls have been denied legal abortions following rape or because of serious health conditions and have been hounded by the media for seeking them. The 2004 case of a young pregnant woman who died after being denied medical treatment is currently under consideration at the European Court of Human Rights.

Other articles in this issue of Reproductive Health Matters focus on many aspects of health privatisation worldwide and includes studies from Bangladesh, Turkey, Malawi, India, Madagascar and South Africa.

More information: doi:10.1016/S0968-8080(11)37548-9

Safe & Legal Abortion in Poland Now! |

Prawo do bezpiecznej i legalnej aborcji dla Polek!


In late August or September 2012 the Polish parliament will vote on a new bill that would liberalize the current restrictive law on abortion and expand access to contraception and comprehensive sexuality education.


Poland currently has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The law is a fiction, however. Far from stopping abortions from happening, it has merely pushed them underground. It is estimated that illegal abortion generate up to US$ 95 million a year in backstreet abortions.


We need your support to convince Members of the Polish Parliament to support this new bill so that Polish women can again enjoy the full spectrum of their reproductive and sexual rights.

Please endorse the letter at the link below written by the Federation for Women and Family Planning to the Polish Parlamentarians by signing this petition individually or as an organization/network, to help us promote this important cause.

Please share this request for solidarity within your contacts and networks:

Thank you!!
Federation for Women & Family Planning, Warsaw, Poland

December 6, 2011 – 12:39am

Poland tends to get associated with a number of different things depending on interests and geographical location. The French perceive us as skilled plumbers, the Japanese and music lovers think of Chopin, and Americans and food lovers associate Poland with superb sausages. However, if you’re interested in reproductive rights what comes to mind when Poland is mentioned is not classical music or good simple food, but an awfully restrictive anti-abortion legal framework and a strong political will to make things worse (I wrote more about the anti-abortion laws and their history here). Over the past 20 years the political allegiance of those in power didn’t seem to matter much, left or right—they were always mostly white males over 45 with no intention of getting into trouble with the Catholic Church by talking about reproductive health, or anything to do with sex for that matter, including sex education in schools or even contraception.

However, just last month a historical thing happened in Poland (a few actually). For the first time in recent history, we re-elected the same government. This was big news back in Poland. Many people, whatever their feelings towards the somewhat hilariously (in English) named Prime Minister Donald Tusk, were pleased with the thought that we are coming of age as a democracy. Others were excited that the far right, Eurosceptic, nationalist (and I could just keep the negative adjectives coming) Jaroslaw Kaczynski—the identical twin brother of the former president who died in a plane crash last year—did not win the elections. Some were also genuinely pleased that Tusk—a self-proclaimed, liberal conservative—stayed in power. But make no mistake, Tusk and his Civic Platform party are liberal when it comes to economy and deregulation and conservative when it’s about social issues. Although Mr. Tusk grandly declared that “he will not kneel in front of bishops” and that he “answers to the people and not the Catholic priests,” he has not in fact done anything which the bishops would have looked upon unkindly.

In his previous four years as head of the Polish government, Tusk has literally not done a single thing to improve the current, appallingly bad, reproductive health situation in the country. There is still no evidence-based sex education in the vast majority of schools; contraception (other than barrier methods) still has to be prescribed by a gynecologist and is still expensive and not refunded; abortion is legal but only if the pregnancy is the result of a crime or the health or life of the fetus or mother is endangered (and even then it is very difficult to obtain). Things don’t seem to be looking too good, do they? And there’s more—Elzbieta Radziszewska, the equality minister for the past four years, was openly anti-feminist and anti-gay.  For example, she said on live television that she “will not take these arguments seriously because they are coming from a gay man.”  (I should also note that the man in question was not publicly out at the time she made her outrageous statement.)

So in a country with no sex education, (practically) no abortion, and a homophobic equality minister, things couldn’t really get much worse (not within the legal framework of what the EU allows for, anyway). Therefore, it was with some hope that I looked forward to the current elections. However, a month down the line, my feelings are mixed to say the least. Let’s take a look at some of the good stuff first.

  • Anna Grodzka—the first transsexual parliamentarian EVER ANYWHERE— got elected to the Polish parliament. What’s more, she got elected from Cracow—the capital of the conservative Polish south. Now, there’s a victory for tolerance and inclusion if I ever saw one.
  • Wanda Nowicka—the head of the Polish Planned Parenthood International affiliate also got elected and became the deputy speaker of the Parliament.
  • Robiert Biedron—an LBGTQ activist got elected as the first openly homosexual parliamentarian.

Oh, and the homophobic equality minister got sacked (only about three-and-a-half years too late).

It being Poland and the government being “liberal-conservative,” not all the news is this good, of course. The major negative jaw-dropper is the new Minster of Justice. When gossip first broke, on the eve of the official announcement, that Jaroslaw Gowin might get the Ministry of Justice, everyone thought it was a joke. I didn’t even bother reading about it because the idea seemed so ridiculous. And good for me, because I got an additional 12 hours free from worrying about the state of the Polish legal system and particularly the abortion laws.

The thing is, Jaroslaw Gowin as minister of justice is no less ridiculous, now that it’s true, than it was when we all thought it was just a bad joke. Gowin is a philosopher with no legal background whatsoever. Somewhat weirdly, the prime minister said that his lack of legal training or education is in fact an advantage, because he has no vested interests or dues to pay. That he may have absolutely no idea what he’s doing didn’t seem to occur to Tusk as a potential issue. All this may look like just another crazy “he’s my good buddy and I owe him a favor” ministerial nomination, if not for fact Gowin is also a Catholic fundamentalist and an affiliate of the notorious Opus Dei.

Gowin has a PhD in philosophy and his previous ventures into law-making could be seen as somewhat relevant to his education. He was appointed by the prime minister to write the bioethics (aka in-vitro) bill. Personally, Gowin believes in-vitro to be dehumanizing baby-killing (instead of a solution for infertility), but he was gracious enough to put his Catholic views aside when writing what may become the law of the land in a supposedly secular country. Well, he sort of tried to put his views aside (I think). He ended up drafting a bill, which if turned into law would allow only married couples to create no more than two embryos which could not later be destroyed (or used for scientific purposes). Also, no woman older than 40 would be allowed the treatment (even though women older than 40 are the primary audience for such treatment). Gowin confessed that if it were up to him, he would straight out put a moratorium on in-vitro procedures and have none of this godlessness happening in the country that spawned the previous Pope.

And, in case there was any doubt about his views on terminating pregnancies—according to the new Minister of Justice, abortion is bad and should be completely delegalized. However, Gowin said he won’t attempt that because it might turn out to be counterproductive and end up winning more support for the “leftist/liberal/communist” pro-choice agenda. The fact that if he de-legalized abortion in a sovereign state that declares the separation of state and church in the constitution he would be blatantly writing the law according to the wishes of another country’s leader (the Holy See) is not an issue for him.

Overall, the view for the next four years is a mix of the good and the scary. The ultra-Catholic minister of justice with no previous experience in serious law-making is definitely pretty depressing; but to lighten the mood Poland now has a deputy speaker of the parliament who is vocally pro-choice and got elected by talking about abortion and women’s rights. And the first openly homosexual member of parliament will also, whether the conservatives like it or not, lead to a “normalization” of the concept of same-sex public figures. Just recently, Julia Pitera, the prime minister’s anti-corruption expert, made a complete fool of herself on live television by saying that Biedron cannot use the term “below the belt” (as in, “this argument is below the belt”) because he’s gay and that makes it obscene. I kid you not, she actually said this on live television. The journalist interviewing her looked like she couldn’t make up her mind whether she was crazy and hearing things or whether Pitera was crazy and actually did just say what she thought she said. Needless to say, the prime minister who tolerated his homophobic equality minister for the past four years did absolutely nothing about this. (On a side note, the prime minister himself has used the term “below the belt” numerous times but Pitera said that it is okay for her boss to say that, because he’s heterosexual.)

In his exposé the prime minister said it’s not the government’s role to bring about social revolutions—by which he most likely meant that there will be no civil partnerships for homosexuals (or heterosexuals for that matter), because yes, Poland is a country where letting two adults formally sanction their relationship amounts to a revolution if they happen to be of the same sex. We haven’t even gotten close to seriously considering the refunding of contraception or infertility treatment or to instituting evidence-based sex education in schools. I’d rather not think what the prime minister would say about teaching 15-year-olds about the importance of consent and STI and pregnancy prevention. He’d probably call that a total social meltdown.

So it seems we’re up for more of the same—the “abortion consensus” will remain the travesty that it is, and the conservatives will not allow for the refunding of contraception or proper sex education in schools. But the winds of change are blowing. Homophobia is no longer okay and getting elected by talking about abortion is obviously entirely doable. Polish people (at least some of them) feel the need to drop the corset of Catholic morality that’s been stifling proper debate and not permitting people to be treated as reasonable adults who can make their own informed choices. Hopefully, these four years will result in more debates about reproductive rights and health than ever before, and then, maybe the next government will finally bring about some real legislative and practical changes.

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…

Why Poland’s Proposed Abortion Ban is a Get-Rich-Quick Scheme for the Medical Establishment and a Death Sentence for Women

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by Katarzyna Pabijanek

July 11, 2011 – 11:08am

Description: http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/files/imagecache/Teaser-Image/teaser-images/poland_abortion_0330.jpg

July 7, 2011. (Romereports.com) A proposal that would ban all abortions in Poland has been sent by Parliament to committee for consideration. Under current law, abortion is legal if there are serious fetal anomalies or in cases of endangerment to the life or health of the mother. In reality, legal abortion even under these circumstances is inaccessible. There is, however, a huge black market in abortion in Poland and the medical establishment earns nearly $100 million annually off the books providing unsafe abortion.

On June 30th, the Polish Parliament debated a bill that would totally ban abortion in Poland, even if a woman’s life were in danger. The left-wing party put forward a proposal to reject the bill during the first reading but the other political parties demanded the bill be referred to committee for consideration, and their proposal won by a vote of 261 to 155.. The committee will present a report on the bill to Parliament by early September. The draft bill, named “On the protection of human life from the moment of conception” – was initially submitted to Parliament in April 2011. The draft was prepared by the Committee of Legislative Initiative led by Mariusz Dzierzawski, a fanatic opponent of abortion, known as an organizer of the macabre anti-abortion exhibitions held in the Polish cities.

Poland’s abortion law is one of the most restrictive in Europe and even more restrictive in practice than on paper. Although the law allows termination of pregnancy under three conditions – including for therapeutic reasons and when it results from a criminal act – legal abortion is actually not accessible even for women whose conditions fall under the exceptions. According to the annual report on implementation of the current abortion law (“Law on family planning, protection of the human fetus and conditions for legal abortion”) there are approximately 500 (out of ten million women of reproductive age) legal pregnancy terminations a year.

The legal principles are applied with great rigidity and there is widespread abuse of conscience clauses among doctors and entire institutions intended to deny women legal abortion.   According to Polish law, physicians can refuse to perform abortion or dispense contraceptives on the grounds of conscientious objection. The conscientious objection clause and the way it is exercised in Poland have become a significant barrier to accessing services to which women are entitled by law.  It also happens quite often in Poland that conscientious objection is ”practiced” by the entire hospital, not by individual doctors, which opposes the individuality-based concept of the conscience clause. The recent anti-choice initiative call on the pharmacists to refuse to sell the contraceptives in pharmacies, and was inspired by the Council of Europe’s recent unfortunate resolution “The right to conscientious objection clause in the legal care”.

One case that upset much of the general public concerned a visually-impaired Polish woman, who was denied an abortion on health grounds, even though medical diagnoses confirmed that continuing her pregnancy could further severely damage her vision, thereby constituting a risk to her health.

Meanwhile the criminalization of abortion in Poland has led to the development of a vast illegal private sector with no controls on price, quality of care or accountability. Clandestine abortions generate up to $95 million a year for Polish doctors as women turn to the illegal private sector to terminate pregnancies. Since abortion became illegal in the late 1980s the number of abortions carried out in hospitals has fallen by 99 percent. The private trade in abortions is, however, flourishing, with abortion providers advertising openly in newspapers. The biggest losers are the least privileged: in 2009 the cost of a surgical abortion in Poland was greater than the average monthly income of a Polish citizen. Low-income groups are less able to protest against discrimination due to lack of political influence. Better-off women can pay for abortions generating millions in unregistered, tax-free income for doctors. Some women seek safe, legal abortions abroad in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Germany.

The newest law proposal is being debated by the Parliament, and the report is to be presented in early September. The leftist Democratic Left Alliance Party presented another bill calling for liberalization of abortion. However, the progressive bill will not be discussed by the Parliament during its current term. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October and it is becoming obvious that abortion will be the main coin used to gain voters. Pro-choice groups are currently forming an initiative to push for a liberal bill introducing refundable legal abortion till the 12th week of pregnancy, funding for contraceptives and sexual education in schools.

Poland is currently presiding over the council of the European Union, and the failure to reject this very restrictive bill on the very first day of the Presidency of the EU Council is a worrying signal to the international community. Polish groups have initiated a campaign calling on supporters to send a letter to the Prime Minister of Poland.

The letter is available at ASTRA’s website [21] and copied below.  We encourage you to send your letter opposing this law to Prime Minister Donald Tusk, donald.tusk@sejm.pl [22].  We also ask that you send a cc: federa@astra.org.pl [23].

Sample letter:

Your Excellency, I write to express my concern that the draft text for the new bill on abortion: “The law on changing the Law on family planning, protection of the human fetus and conditions for legal abortion” – to be discussed by the Parliament’s Committee by the 1st of September – contains provisions on that will result in violations of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health. The international human rights standard is to liberalize abortion laws to make it safe and accessible to women and thereby lessen maternal mortality related to unsafe abortion. The language used in the draft of the new bill regarding the right to life does not correspond to that used in international and European human rights instruments – to which Poland is also party – as it unconditionally prohibits abortion, thereby leading not to lessening the number of women inducing abortion but only makes it dangerous for women who will undergo clandestine and unsafe abortion. Passing the bill will increase maternal mortality, abortion-related injuries and deaths are likely to be especially high among poor women, who can’t afford to travel abroad. As a result, many of them might try self-induced abortions. It is unacceptable that in the 21st Century, a European country includes in its legislation a provision which directly endangers women’s lives. I trust that you will do your best to ensure that Poland considers reviewing its legislation regarding abortion in a forward-looking legislation, taking the lead in promoting women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Sincerely yours,

Rules for receiving cross-border healthcare and reimbursement of these costs were clarified thanks to the EU Directive on the application of patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare, which was formally adopted by the European Parliament and the Council in 2011, and all Member States have to implement it by November 2013. It provides more clarity about possibilities to seek healthcare in another Member State . The Directive also clarifies who is responsible for quality and safety of care in cross-border settings. Finally, it strengthens cooperation in different areas, such as networks of centres of reference for specialised care. Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning seeks to take advantage of the Directive in order to advance women’s access to SRHR services. We expect that the implementation of the Directive will improve the situation of Polish women’s access to abortion. Due to the restrictive law access to abortion is limited, moreover even women who are legally entitled to abortion are often denied access to services in Poland . The Directive will change it, because women will be given the opportunity to seek the services abroad, and the Polish state will be obliged to reimburse the costs of services. It is important to note that, at the same time the Czech Ministry of Health has proposed the new law regulating accessibility of abortion for citizen of the EU. The current Czech law regulating access to abortion was adopted in 1986 a nd it does not conform with the European regulations. According to the current legislation, abortion on request is available to the 12th week, and abortion for medical reasons is allowed till the 24th week.


The text of the directive is available here:





The Federation for Women and Family Planning expresses a great satisfaction with landmark judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg in the case R.R. v. Poland,which states that Poland has violated the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Federation is even more pleased as the R.R. case was conducted by our organization in cooperation with the Warsaw University Law Clinic, supported by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Att. Monika Gąsiorowska and Irmina Kotkiuk, who conducted the case at the Court, are members of the Federation’s Network of Lawyers.


The Court stated that the human rights resulting from the articles 3 and 8 of the Convention were violated by the Polish State in the case of pregnant woman who could not exercise her right to the prenatal diagnostic tests which might have confirmed or denied a previous diagnosis of a presence of  severe genetic abnormality of a foetus.


Following the judicature consolidated in the previous judgments the Court stated that the woman’s right to respect for private and family life (article 8 of the Convention) was violated because she had been denied reliable information about a condition of her foetus and had been prevented from deciding whether or not continue a pregnancy. Consequently, the Polish State did not provided the woman with a possibility to exercise the patient’s fundamental right to information. Furthermore, the Court stated that the Polish State does not provide an effective mechanism for exercising this right.


The Federation is also greatly satisfied with a fact that the Court acknowledged that the article 3 of the Convention considering prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment was violated in this case. It is for the first time in a history that the Court passed such a judgment in the case considering the reproductive rights. The Court stated that a medical treatment the woman had experienced exceeded the limits acceptable by the Convention.  The woman had suffered for many weeks what according to the Court exceeds a minimum threshold of pain acceptable on a ground of the article 3. It means that a way the doctors looked after the women was an inhuman and degrading treatment.


The Federation is pleased that the Court awarded the woman a record-breaking 45 000 EURO compensation. The Court acknowledged that the woman’s torment and suffering caused by a lack of knowledge about her situation together with a great humiliation she had suffered at the doctors’ hands as well as the other circumstances of the case justify the compensation’s amount.


We consider the Court’s judgment in the R.R. case as a great success in our fight for respecting the women’s reproductive rights in Poland.

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