Warsaw, Poland – The announcement by Poland’s Constitutional Court, to rule abortion of fetuses with severe or irreversible abnormalities unconstitutional by the end of last year, shocked Polish society and caused mass protests all over the country to erupt. Despite severe societal backlash, the law was adopted and implemented in January this year. Was this change really as critical as it appeared?
We asked this and many other abortion-related questions to Anna Jaskólska, a Polish national who works in an abortion clinic in Vienna – and who meet with Polish women every week.
At the beginning of our conversation just now, you told me that 2020 did not bring any real changes to the accessibility of abortion in Poland. Why is that?
Actually, until 1993 abortion was provided on request in public and private facilities in Poland, but then the government voted through the Law on Family Planning, Human Embryo Protection and Conditions of Abortion. This means that since then, abortion is permitted only in three scenarios: when a woman’s life and health are under serious threat, when the fetus has severe defects, or when the pregnancy results from rape or incest. Since 1993, abortion under any other circumstances is illegal. Of course, abortions were, and are still conducted in Poland, but “underground”.
What can you tell me about these “underground” abortions?
I have heard stories from some of my patients who tried to get an underground abortion in Poland. The procedure is dangerous, because of the sanitary conditions and the old methods being practised – like using a curettage. Moreover, only one medic is present throughout the procedure, whereas in our clinic we have a doctor who conducts the medical procedure, an anesthesiologist who monitors the patient’s well-being and a nurse to assist. But most importantly, the method used in our clinic is machine vacuum aspiration. It is completely safe, it only takes a few minutes and there are no medical consequences.
And is or was this method ever available in Poland?
No, never! The machine necessary to conduct this type of procedure is expensive – and why invest in something illegal? Adding to an already difficult situation, Polish doctors are not well-trained when it comes to abortion, therefore the chances are higher that illegally conducted abortions will also end tragically.
Okay, so let’s come back to the core issue. Abortion has always and will always continue to be practised, right?
Yes, of course! Historical records show that already during the times of ancient Egypt, women tried to abort fetuses for different reasons. Abortion happens when sex happens, you can use contraceptives and still get pregnant. To sum up, abortions are practised in every country, even if some politicians like to deny it.
So, why did you start to work in an abortion clinic in Vienna?
In 2007, one of my friends went to Vienna to get an abortion. She went to the clinic by herself. After the procedure, she called me because she was scared that something was wrong as the doctor had asked her to stay longer than most other patients. Since I was living in Vienna, I went to the clinic and it turned out that everything was okay. The doctor had only wanted to talk to her about the situation in Poland. We began talking and because I was living in Vienna, and spoke German, the doctor asked me if I would like to work for them, as they needed support from someone speaking both Polish and German.
What a coincidence! Do you have any statistics on your patients’ nationalities?
Of course. Women from Austria make up the largest group of our patients. I don’t want to say “Austrian women” since we have lots of patients from different ethnic backgrounds who live in Austria. In second place we have women from Hungary, followed by Polish and Slovak women.
It is interesting to hear that more women are coming from Hungary than from Poland. Recently, Hungarian and Polish political rhetorics are becoming more similar, but why do Slovak women go to Austria to get an abortion when they can get it legally in their own country?
I do not want to speak poorly about Slovakia or any other country where abortion is legal. The fact that Slovak women come to Vienna to get an abortion speaks for itself.
I understand. If possible, could you describe who goes from Poland to Vienna to get an abortion?
You may be surprised, but around 80% of the Polish women who come to our clinic already have children. Their decision is often family-related, they want to make sure that they can provide good lives for their already existing children. This is every woman’s right.
There are no good or bad reasons for deciding to have an abortion. The reason that is good for that particular woman is simply a good reason. I think many women come to Vienna because they really need the process to be safe, they have children waiting for them at home.
On the other hand, I would say that around 70% of the Polish women who come to our clinic to get an abortion have conservative views.
Conservative, really? How come?
I will tell you the story of one such patient. She told me that she is completely against abortion but only for the young, “loose” women who have lots of sexual partners. For her, it was okay to get an abortion because she got pregnant with her husband…
Regardless of background, most women can get pregnant and for every woman, it is possible to feel that you do not want to keep the baby. There are no rules. Our patients are lawyers, cashiers, teachers, but also police officers. I will not tell you how many women from the current Polish government came to get an abortion in Vienna.
So why does the government want to completely prohibit abortion in Poland?
I do not believe it is all about the babies. If it was, Poland would have a better social care system for disabled children and their parents. I think it is a political strategy to rule with fear.
I remember how in 2015 politicians were threatening society with refugees. But as a matter of fact, there was no “Islamization of Poland”, no refugees, no chaos, their strategy to scare people did not work as planned. Since then, we have seen increasingly negative propaganda about LGBT+ people who were supposed to harm and sexually assault children. This too has not been a successful campaign. So then they started on a topic that always works – abortion… Women who are not pregnant are scared that it will be impossible to get an abortion if they get pregnant and if they need it. Others fear abortion because of religion. They believe that abortion is a sin and that it should be prohibited regardless of the reason.
One final question, how do you manage your daily life while hearing and experiencing all these difficult stories?
In the beginning, it was much harder. I got emotionally engaged, I was hugging the women, holding their hands, crying with them. Then I realised this is not what they need. They need professional support and I need to provide it to them. When I treat them professionally and not emotionally, I have noticed that they seem to feel better about the whole situation.
Anna, thank you for agreeing to share your story with us.
Thank you for agreeing to listen to it.
Interview conducted by Nikol Tomar and originally published by Lossi 36, an official partner of Kafkadesk.