An international group of pro-choice campaigners will launch an initiative in Poland this week to provide advice and funding for women to travel abroad to have abortions.
Poland has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, and proposals backed by the rightwing government to introduce a total ban on abortions in 2016 were scrapped only after large-scale protests.
Abortion Without Borders, which launches on Wednesday, will ensure that any woman living in Poland who wants to receive an abortion will be able to do so safely, the organisers told hlcarpenter.com.
“We are going to emphasise that it doesn’t really matter how much money you have and how far in your pregnancy you are, even if you don’t have money and are past the 12th week. ‘I cannot fund an abortion’ cannot be a reason for someone to become a parent,” said Karolina Więckiewicz, from Abortion Dream Team, a pro-choice advocacy and campaigning group.
Mara Clarke, of the Abortion Support Network, which is providing funding for the project, said five groups in four countries were coming together to launch the initiative.
For a decade, her network has helped Irish women travel abroad for abortions. After last year’s landslide referendum vote in the Republic of Ireland to legalise abortion, the network has expanded to other parts of Europe with restrictive abortion laws, including Malta, Gibraltar and Poland, which is by far the biggest European country where most abortion remains illegal.
“We know that making abortion against the law doesn’t stop it. It just drives stigma around abortion,” said Clarke.
Abortion Without Borders will launch a helpline that women can call for advice and information about how best to access safe abortions. If necessary, the group will help with travel, hotel and medical costs in Germany, the Netherlands or Britain for those who cannot afford it.
Officially, about 1,000 women a year obtain legal abortions in Poland, but campaigners estimate the true number of abortions annually is about 150,000, which includes those who use pills in the early stages of pregnancy and women who travel elsewhere for surgical abortions.
However, free surgical abortions in EU countries are available only to residents, meaning Polish women travelling to other countries have to pay to use private clinics. This can cost anything from €470 (£395) for an abortion in Germany to £1,300 for a procedure carried out between the 19th and 24th weeks of pregnancy in England.
“We are emphasising in our messaging that we are not asking people how they got pregnant, why they want to terminate or anything like that. The only question that we will be asking is how far along in their pregnancy they are, to be able to advise them accordingly,” said Więckiewicz.
The proposed further tightening of Polish legislation in 2016 foresaw jail terms for women seeking abortions and even the potential for “suspicious” miscarriages to be investigated. The draconian proposals sparked an outcry and forced MPs to shelve the plans, but some pro-choice activists say that by focusing on the extreme cases targeted by the proposed law, the protests had an unhelpful side effect.
“It focused the debate on ‘good abortion’ against ‘bad abortion’ and in some ways actually set back the cause,” Więckiewicz said. There was still a huge stigma attached to abortion, she said, and part of the goal of the campaign was to encourage women to speak more openly about abortion as a choice open to all.
“The only person with the right to decide to continue or end a pregnancy is the person who is pregnant – not governments or churches or bad laws or policies,” said Justyna Wydrzyńska, from Kobiety w Sieci, a group that has been providing abortion advice to Polish women for more than a decade and is one of the partners of the new project.
Views on abortion among people in Poland, which is strongly Catholic, are slowly becoming more liberal, and the 2016 protests showed that almost all Poles back abortion rights in cases of rape or where the woman’s life is in danger. But a survey that year also found that only 14% thought a woman not wanting to have a child was an acceptable reason to have an abortion.
In the longer term, the trajectory of Ireland over the past decades is what worries Polish conservatives and religious figures, and gives hope to activists.
“There has been a big change, a big step towards the pro-choice side. We are moving in the right direction, but we need at least 10 years to get to the stage of Ireland,” said Wydrzyńska.