Death threats and phone calls: the women answering cries for help one year on from Poland’s abortion ban

·9 min read

One year ago, on the night Poland introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, the phone started ringing at the country’s most high-profile family planning organisation. Over the course of the evening, volunteers took calls from more than 20 panicked women who suddenly found their next-day appointments for abortions cancelled.

One of the calls was from hospital staff at a loss over what to do about a woman who broke down after being told that her termination would not go ahead. “She went into a frenzy, got into the hospital lift and was going up and down, up and down, without stopping for an hour,” says Krystyna Kacpura, director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa).

Staff at Federa were used to helping women navigate a hostile healthcare system in which legal terminations were already virtually impossible. But the new legislation put in place an almost total abortion ban in everything but name, allowing women to terminate only if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or if it represented a threat to life or health. At the time the legislation was brought in, about 1,000 legal abortions were carried out in Poland every year, 98% because of foetal abnormalities. This option was now closed to women. It was, says Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer for Federa, a devastating blow.

Since its announcement, at least 34,000 women in Poland have managed to get abortions despite the ban, and hundreds travelled abroad for later abortions, facilitated by groups such as Abortion Support Network and Women on Web.

But now the women calling Federa for help are often in serious distress, many further into their pregnancy because they have discovered a problem at a second-trimester scan. Pregnancies are more likely to have been planned. “In the past, it was rare for us to receive calls from individuals in this state. This last year, it has been 80% of our work,” says Ferenc in Federa’s Warsaw office. “Every call is very emotional.”

In the past year staff and volunteers at Federa, like many other women working as advisers, lawyers and activists in the pro-choice movement, have faced death threats, intimidation and legal challenges. Many have said they are exhausted by their increasing workload as they struggle to help women trying to access safe abortions.

Ferenc says she is not afraid of the people who send bomb threats to her office or superimpose bullet holes on pictures of her face. “I’m more scared that one day prosecutors will launch an investigation against us,” she says. In the past, few Poles faced trial on abortion-related charges. The state largely turned a blind eye to illegal abortion services, with pages towards the back of newspapers filled with euphemistic adverts for private clinics offering “restoration of the menstrual cycle”. That changed when the new law came in.

Justyna Wydrzyńska, of pro-choice groups Abortion Dream Team and Women on Web, became the first Polish abortion activist to face the prospect of trial in September, after a man notified the police that his wife ordered abortion pills online. The case is ongoing.

Ferenc believes the latest changes did not fully appease the ruling Law and Justice party’s (PiS) religious base. “Before, abortion was not a topic, no one wanted to talk about it. Now the anti-abortion groups on whose support PiS is relying are demanding blood.”

Marta Lempart – who is fighting 86 court cases under various charges – heads the pro-choice Polish Women’s Strike movement and says the new laws have targeted the women most at need of healthcare and support.

“Polish women with unwanted pregnancies are now in a better situation than those with wanted pregnancies but who are facing complications, because there is a working system completely outside of public healthcare for the former. But the healthcare system does not provide a service to the latter at all.”

A further attempt to ban abortion completely and jail women who had terminations for life was rejected by the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, but the government has since announced it would begin compiling a database of all pregnancies across the country, a move defended as a digitisation of existing documentation but which women’s rights groups believe is another natalist policy designed to control women’s lives and a sign that worse is to come.

I called one woman straight after she left the hospital. She was in an awful state, it’s hard to say what she would have done if we hadn’t reached her

Krystyna Kacpura

Meanwhile, an underfunded and overstretched Polish healthcare system, accused of failing to provide women with reproductive care, is emboldened by the new laws. “Women are falsely told by doctors that contraceptive pills give them cancer, or that an IUD is dangerous for those who haven’t had children yet,” says Ferenc. She has begun advising women to record their conversations with doctors. One woman said that doctors treating her breast cancer repeatedly told her the illness was caused by an abortion she had months earlier.

But Kacpura and others believe the legislation may also have had a chilling effect on doctors who are terrified of navigating the new law. She says, before the 2021 ruling, doctors would rarely contact her, but in the past year she has been answering their calls day and night. “No one [in authority] explained to the doctors what they should do,” she says. Sometimes, doctors call to pass on the numbers of patients they were not able to legally help. “I called one woman straight after she left the hospital. She was in an awful state, it’s hard to say what she would have done if we hadn’t reached her.”

Agata Bzdyń, a lawyer who represents a number of women who have taken their abortion refusals to the European court of human rights, points to reports that Bielański hospital in Warsaw, which she says “has a reputation for still providing abortions”, has been under pressure from the government to hand over documents on the number of terminations approved. Bielański did not respond to a request for comment.

Beyond the government, Roman Catholic lay groups continue to exert pressure for an outright abortion ban. The group Ordo Iuris (Order of Law) was one of the mobilising forces behind a citizen’s bill in favour of a total abortion ban, a move that was rejected by parliament but precipitated the ruling. Since 2016, the organisation has acted as official adviser to the PiS government in areas of reproductive rights and education. The organisation recently announced that it will provide legal representation to a man who is suing his wife for having an abortion, which Ordo Iuris argues violated the man’s right to family life.

The most shocking case of the past 12 months is that of a woman called Izabela, who died in November of septic shock while in her 22nd week of pregnancy. Doctors at the hospital in Pszczyna, in south-west Poland, did not perform an abortion, even though her foetus would not survive, according to a lawyer for the family. “For now, because of the abortion law, they can’t do anything,” Izabela texted to her mother shortly before she died. An investigation found “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined . She is survived by a husband and daughter.

Kacpura said she knows of several cases in the past year where the woman’s waters broke prematurely, as Izabela’s did, but doctors refused to perform a caesarean or induce birth. “A nightmare, because the foetus cannot survive but the heartbeat can continue for days, sometimes weeks, and the woman has to wonder whether she has already become a coffin.”

Bartłomiej Wróblewski, a leading PiS parliamentary force behind the change in the law, said: “It is not true that this law puts women’s lives in danger, because nobody challenged existing provision of Polish law to rescue endangered life and health of the mother, even when it leads to the death of their unborn child.” Echoing other governmental and anti-abortion voices, he stressed that in his eyes there was no connection between Izabela’s death and the new abortion restrictions, instead putting the blame on doctors.

But Izabela’s death horrified the country and sparked fresh protests. It may have proved a turning point. Several polls have found the majority of people in the country oppose the 21 January ruling.

Even those who are not pro-choice resent what they see as the Roman Catholic church overstepping the mark by creating political pressure for a ban, says Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at Sussex University. “About 40% of people in Poland still attend weekly mass, but that is not to suggest they are happy for the church to have more control of their lives,” says Szczerbiak. He believes the change in law may have shifted perceptions of the issue in Polish politics.

Related: ‘I used to judge people’: the Polish woman who became her city’s lone voice for abortion rights

Ferenc echoes this. “We thought there was no political chance to change [the law around abortion]. The paradox is that it has changed for the worse, but that means we have a chance to liberalise the law too,” she says.

A pro-choice citizen’s bill calling for abortion to be made fully available is gaining momentum. “We had an older gentleman come in whose wife told him to print the form from the internet and he got his friends to sign it, and then he came to deliver his 10 signatures,” says Lempart from her office on Wiejska Street, a few doors down from the Polish parliament. “Before, initiatives to collect signatures were mostly organised by groups and political parties. Now, I’d say 60% is just individuals collecting signatures.”

Organisers say the citizen’s bill has reached the 100,000 signatures needed for official recognition and more signatures are coming in every day.

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