Ukrainian refugees seek abortion in Poland

painting by Goya of an act of violence against two women
Francisco de Goya: Act of Violence against two Women, painted 1810 – 1812; used by permission of the Städel Museum, Frankfurt a. M., licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Abortion is a personal dilemma

Abortion is a very controversial issue for me personally. As I revealed in my article on infant deaths, I struggled to have a child and have suffered physically and mentally in the attempts. Another factor why I have thought a lot about whether abortion is morally right is that I grew up as a catholic. The church of my youth considered abortion a mortal sin.

However, I am a feminist and I do believe in the right of a woman to decide what happens to and in her body. I was still pretty upset when in the second bed of the two-bed hospital room, where I was recuperating from my latest failed attempt to keep the twins I had conceived, two to three women per day came to recover from their abortions. I asked myself if they would one day regret having terminated a potential life, and maybe end up not having a child when they wanted to. 

I am not a practising catholic, partly because of the misogyny of the traditional church and the ban on priests marrying. But I am vegetarian because I do believe in the sanctity of all life. Is the ending of the life of an unborn child ever justified?

Responsibility of having a child 

Having worked in a psychiatric hospital for children, I was often faced with the result of women giving birth to an unwanted child. It rarely leads to a happy life for the mother or the child. Not everybody is able and prepared for the life-long responsibility having a child brings with it. 

So when is an abortion the preferable decision for a woman? And has the state the right to interfere in that decision?

Poland has restrictive abortion laws

Poland is a case of the state controlling whether women can have an abortion. It has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. It is one of the right wing government’s trend to stand for so-called traditional, Christian values. Sadly, as in neighbouring Hungary, these values seem to be more and more homophobic and misogynistic.

Up to 2021, Poland allowed abortions in extreme cases when the mother’s health or life was at risk, in the case of proven rape or if the foetus showed signs of severe disease. The new even more restrictive law, which came into effect on 27 January 2021, means abortions are now only available in cases of proven rape or if the mother’s life is at risk.

Human rights of women 

Human rights organisations, including the Council of Europe, are protesting Poland’s stance.  The Commissioner for Human Rights made a statement, before the case brought by 12 Polish women against the Polish government was to be heard in the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR):

“The Commissioner recalls that ensuring women’s effective access to safe and legal abortion care is a critical component of states’ obligations to respect and guarantee women’s human rights, and in particular the freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 3 and the right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

UN experts call on Poland to respect the rights of protesters

UN independent human rights experts criticise Poland court’s ruling for a near complete ban on abortions. In October 2020, about 100 000 people took to the streets of Warsaw in a protest against the authorities over the ruling on abortion rights. After protests had been met with heavy-handed police action, sanctioned by the Prime Minister, the UN experts also called on the Polish authorities to respect the rights of men and women protesting against the abortion ruling.  

Amnesty International supports woman accused of aiding an abortion

Amnesty has looked at both sides of the abortion argument in Poland. They demand that the country respect women’s human rights.  Amnesty are also campaigning for the dropping of the case against an aid worker prosecuted for handing an abortion pill to a desperate woman. This case has been adjourned until July.

Ukrainian women refugees Rights 

These stringent laws are now getting even more international attention, since they are also applied to Ukrainian refugee women. Sadly, many of the women fleeing war have encountered the horrific violence by Russian soldiers, often including gang rape. If these traumatic experiences lead to unwanted pregnancies, how can the women be expected to give birth?

A foreign reporter observing the arrival of refugees in Poland writes:

“When arriving in Poland many refugees are met at train stations and border crossings by religious groups and belligerent anti-choice activists, who see their plight as constituting a new front in Poland’s long-running battle over faith and reproductive freedom”

Azadeh Moaveni

This reporter, Azadeh Moaveni for the London Review of Books, got further information from the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, whose spokesperson commented that Ukrainian refugees did not expect such a draconian law. The reporter heard from four women raped by Russian soldiers who had chosen to stay in Kiev which has better services for post-rape trauma and reproductive health.

Those post-rape refugees who have arrived in Poland can get help most quickly from underground channels linked to an organisation in another European country. From this they can get a questionnaire and advice in Ukrainian, and then the abortion pill if requested  within three days.  But for some this would be too late or unsuitable  so it may be necessary to seek surgical abortion.  They then have to be guided through the Polish health system where only a few hospitals are doing surgical abortions under the law, which allows for abortion in cases of rape or if the mother’s health is seriously threatened, both difficult to prove in the chaos of war. The pro-choice Polish organisation knows of at least 200 Ukrainian refugee women who are seeking surgical abortions.  

Hungary and abortion

Even though abortion in Hungary is legal in the case of grave damage to the foetus, when the woman’s health is at risk or when the pregnancy is the result of a crime, the state finds ways of making access more difficult. For example, the government is funding a break in legally mandated procedures in selected hospitals, by attaching a ‘no-abortion’ condition to its financial support. 

Noa Nogradi, a women’s rights expert and political philosopher is quoted as saying:

 “The message is clear: if you choose abortion, the state wants you to have it the hard way. Women are subject to mandatory waiting periods and two counselling sessions that are intended to change their minds. According to research by the PATENT Association, a reproductive rights advocacy group, these counselling sessions only seem to add to the women’s mental strain.”

Women fleeing violence refused help

Witnessing the cruelty of Russian crimes against humanity does not leave these refugee women in a healthy physical or emotional state. They don’t have the support of their husbands or other family members to help them cope. Many will have PTSD. The rape(s) happened in a war zone and are impossible to prove retrospectively in a Polish or Hungarian court. 

Do these women have to travel to another country for the abortion which would help their recovery from the horror they went through?

If women were in charge 

USA is also now following the path of banning abortion, but is part of a bigger attack on women’s rights and freedoms, as analysed by the Guardian

All pushed by a man accused of sexual assault; eg the bigger picture is men’s control of women.

As a final question, I wonder if the number of women in high political positions have some bearing on the decisions by illiberal governments on women’s reproductive rights? Neither Hungary nor Poland has a female head of government. It is possible to be a far-right politician in the EU and still be personally pro-choice, like Marine le Pen in France. Would these decisions be the same if men were the ones getting pregnant and giving birth?