Warsaw, Poland – Polish women seeking to get an abortion have been doubly burdened in recent months by the Constitutional Court’s decision to ban abortion in cases of foetal malformation, but also (and especially) by the COVID-19 pandemic. Travelling abroad to terminate unwanted pregnancies while many restrictions are still in place has been more challenging than ever.
2020 and 2021 were nightmarish for Polish women. On 27 January 2021, the Polish Constitutional Court restricted the right to abortion to cases of rape and threat to the life of the pregnant woman. But for some months now, the Covid-19 pandemic, and its impeded mobility within the Schengen area, has affected the hundreds (thousands?) of women who used to travel every year to a foreign country for an abortion. Estimates from pro-choice organisations are the only ones available, but it is believed that around 100,000 women residing in Poland (between 80,000 and 200,000 according to other sources) have an abortion every year. The vast majority of them take place at home up to the 12th week of pregnancy.
While doctors in Poland are evidently not allowed to prescribe medical abortions, there is nothing to prevent self-induced abortions by administering pills (mifepristone and misoprostol or other prostaglandins) that induce a spontaneous abortion. Both substances can be bought on the Internet, but to avoid any scams or prosecutions, Polish women can get in contact with two international organisations: Women on Web and Women Help Women, which deliver them for a voluntary fee and after completing a medical questionnaire. In addition, misoprostol, which can terminate unwanted pregnancies in 85% of cases, is actually available in Polish pharmacies, on prescription, under the name Cytotec or Arthrotec.
These safe (or almost safe) DIY abortion options have led to a drop in the number of clandestine abortions performed in private practices in Poland in recent years. For those who nevertheless prefer a surgical abortion or who are overdue, there is still the option of terminating their pregnancy in neighbouring countries, namely, and in estimated order of popularity: Slovakia, Germany, the Czech Republic (up to the twelfth week of pregnancy), Austria (up to the fourteenth week) or beyond that up to the twenty-fourth week in the Netherlands and the U.K.
Abortion without borders
This is where the pandemic, with its restrictions, closed schools, compulsory quarantines and tests and other travel bans, proved to be a real headache. Luckily, three months before the pandemic, Abortion Without Borders, an initiative to help Polish women access abortion, was born. This grouping of pro-choice collectives and organisations brings together two Polish entities (Kobiety w Sieci, Abortion Dream Team) and four organisations based in the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany (Abortion Support Network, Abortion Network Amsterdam, Women Help Women, Ciocia Basia).
“We have helped thousands of people during the pandemic. Among those people only two or three were prevented from getting an abortion because of COVID-19. It’s actually just one more obstacle. But we had someone who had her flight cancelled 6 times!” says Mara Clarke, founder of the Abortion Support Network, a U.K. charity that facilitates (and funds if necessary) abortions for Polish women abroad – among other EU citizens denied abortion rights.
The pro-choice campaigner points out that only two Polish women were unable to have an abortion during the pandemic: one could not see herself travelling abroad with her child, whom she was unable to keep; the other was in a car accident and could not reach the U.K. until the 22nd week. “For us, the scariest thing is the people who think it’s impossible and don’t call us.”
But there were moments that were more tense than others. During the only real lockdown in Poland, from mid-March to early May, the borders remained closed (until early June), although they could be crossed with a document proving a medical emergency. “When they announced they were closing the airport, the Polish helpline got something like 115 calls in two days. People were crazy. The first couple of weeks were a bit complicated,” admits Mara Clarke.
The American living in the U.K. points to a range of difficulties that residents in Poland wishing to have an abortion abroad have faced: “The other thing is that you need to explain to your family why you are travelling during the pandemic. Childcare is harder to arrange, there is the quarantine when you get back. All these things take place in a situation that was already difficult and made it even harder. But to me, it shows what women who don’t want to be pregnant are ready to do.”
“Aunt Czechia” to the rescue
In the Czech Republic, a brand new collective was formed following the announcement of the Polish Constitutional Court’s ruling at the end of October 2020, and is now assisting Polish women who wish to have an abortion there, following the example of two other initiatives with similar names, “Aunt Vienna” and “Aunt Barbara” in Berlin.
More than 120 people have sought help from “Ciosia Czecia” (“Aunt Czechia”) for an abortion in recent months. Jolanta, one of the founders of the group, regrets that the critical health situation in the Czech Republic makes it impossible for people from Poland to stay longer than a few hours after the operation. “It’s been clear from the beginning for everyone that the pandemic wouldn’t allow it, but it would be very nice to have a safe space to offer for the person in Czech Republic, if they don’t have it in Poland, if the person is in an abusive relationship, or if the person can’t enjoy quietness back home. Sometimes, it would be really nice if the person could stay one more day and relax. The moral support we provide is important.”
Another major obstacle: with public transport sometimes limited, it is now almost imperative to be able to count on a car with a driver to get to the Czech Republic and back during the day: after a general anesthetic, it is indeed dangerous to get behind the wheel straight away. The collective, which does not collect statistics, confirms that they have helped women with unwanted pregnancies and those with malformed fetuses.
“Another pandemic-induced restriction is that only one person is allowed to be in the hospital. When the people go to a hospital and not to a private clinic, the staff is unlikely to speak Polish and nobody who can speak Czech can come inside to translate. So it’s concerning.” It’s all the more difficult, of course, considering cases where people are young and have never traveled out of Poland before in their lives. “There is a lot of issues to overcome. It takes a lot of effort to make it happen on our sides,” says the Prague-based volunteer, before concluding. “Anti abortion law and pandemic are like a contradictory disaster. You have to travel because your state doesn’t protect you any more. But you’re not able to do it freely because of the pandemic.”
Article written by Hélène Bienvenu and published in partnership with Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale. The research for this article was partly funded by n-ost, with support from the German Federal Foreign Office.
Main photo credit: Radical Focus – Activist Photography