Feb 27, 2006
In the beginning of February, a 35-year-old Warsaw mother with three children filed a suit against her country Poland in the European Human Rights Court. In 2000, when she already had two children and became pregnant, doctors warned her that giving birth would cause her serious problems because she had severe myopia, which could hemorrhage, causing her to lose her sight.
After a lot of agonizing and failed attempts, she finally got a certificate from a general practitioner justifying an abortion. But the director at her public hospital rejected her right to an abortion. The young woman tried to get an illegal abortion, which is what tens of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of women do each year in Poland. But these abortions are expensive, usually costing more than $400. In her case, the bill would have been three times as much, since she needed an anesthesiologist because of prior Caesarians. It was more than she could afford.
So she had the baby by Caesarian section once again. As the doctors had warned, she did suffer a retinal hemorrhage, which left her almost blind within a few months. Because any exertion could now leave her completely blind, she can’t do any physical work, and she doesn’t see well enough to do office work. She gets a disability check for only $167 a month, on which she is supposed to support herself and her three children. But she decided to do something about this. Polish Family Planning, founded in the 1990s, aided and supported her. She filed suit against the hospital director who refused her an abortion, but with no success. This is why she filed suit with the European Human Rights Court. She hoped, “If Poland is condemned, other women will follow and dozens of suits will be filed.”
Poland has had a very restrictive abortion law since 1993, under the influence of the Catholic Church. Abortions are legal only in the case of the most serious medical problems, rape or fetal abnormalities. As a result, the number of legal abortions fell to 151 in 1999, while there were 100,000 each year up to 1990. Many public hospitals refuse to perform any abortions, as was the case with this young woman, even if they would be legal, and even when the mother faces severe medical risks if she gives birth. This explains the growth in back alley abortions, which are both expensive and unsafe. At the same time, many fewer women today use the pill, the surest form of contraceptive. The government has made its price too expensive, and under the weight of the Catholic church, it eliminated compulsory sexual education from the schools in 1999.
This is a catastrophic step backward for women’s rights in a country where abortion was legalized in 1956, well before it was in the U.S., Britain, Germany and France!
At present, three conservative right-wing parties are in power in Poland. One of them is the League of Polish Families, whose program is “religion, family and country,” and is made up of Catholic fundamentalists who have waged a campaign comparing abortion to the Holocaust.
The result of the most reactionary right-wing parties coming to power weighs on the entire population, but especially on women. Polish women unfortunately have many struggles to carry out to defend their minimum rights, including obtaining control over their own bodies.