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Anja Rubik in her sex education campaign
via Facebook (Anja Rubik)

How women are challenging Poland’s ultra-conservative regime

Abortion, contraception and sex education have been restricted in Poland – determined to take control of their lives, women are coming up with their own solutions

In October 2016, thousands of people across Poland skipped work and took to the streets dressed head-to-toe in black to protest an outright ban on abortion, holding signs reading ‘my body, my choice’. The law was proposed by a citizens’ initiative and drafted by the Ordo Iuris Institute, an extreme anti-choice group. It would imprison people seeking an abortion, and investigate women who had miscarriages. 

The ‘Black Protest’ – one of the largest demonstrations in the history of Poland, organised by the women’s rights pioneers, Marta Lempart and Natalia Pancewicz – forced the government to abandon plans, and sparked a new wave of feminist activism. Marta Kotwas, a Polish social scientist at University College London (UCL) tells Dazed: “The protests mobilised women and men and of all ages, backgrounds, living not only in big cities but also smaller towns, with different political views.”

But now, politicians are working on a new ‘anti-abortion law’ that would ban terminations because of foetal impairment and investigate women with miscarriages. Liliana Religa, member of the Warsaw-based Federation for Women and Family Planning (FEDERA) explains that it would be the same as a ban, since this is the most common reason women access legal abortion.

Under Poland’s strict abortion law, pregnancy can only be terminated if it’s the result of rape, the mother’s life is at risk, or the foetus is seriously ill. “Even when it’s legal, doctors in Poland can sign A ‘conscience clause’ allowing them to refuse women an abortion, or emergency contraception. Only 10 per cent of hospitals follow procedure. Most doctors are not our side,” says Religa.

Whether or not a ban is in place, abortions still happen. Around 1,000 legal abortions take place each year while illegal abortions number up to 200,000, according to local women’s rights activists. 

Women typically pay between 2,000 – 4,000 zloty (£418 - £839) for an illegal abortion, but one woman said she was required to pay 9000 zloty (£1,880) and many report experiencing humiliation by doctors.

Many women prefer to go to Germany, Slovakia or Holland for an abortion, where some organisations offer special assistance to Poles. Ciocia Basia, a Berlin-based volunteer group, was created four years ago to assist the growing number of Polish women travelling to Berlin for an abortion. The Polish-speaking group organises all the logistics of travel and accommodation, and helps to cover costs if women cannot afford the procedure, which costs a minimum of 340 euros. Group members even offer their own couch to women for free. 

“Propaganda on state TV tells us only crazy women want to have abortions instead of using condoms, or women only want to kill poor, sick babies”

One group member tells Dazed: “Women are free to call us for psychological support after the procedure, but many just feel relieved. They want to get back to their lives and forget about it.”

Women can also buy pills online through the Women on Waves (WoW) website – a Dutch, pro-choice NGO that gives advice on accessing abortion in countries where it’s restricted.  

Nina (not her real name), a teacher in her mid-20s from Gdansk, used WoW to buy pills when found out she was pregnant at the age of 19. “I knew I had to get an abortion, I was in no position to be a mother. I was about to go to university and my relationship was falling apart,” she says.

“When it was all over, I almost felt bad because I had no regret. I read that I’d have to forgive myself, but I didn’t know what for,” said Nina.

“Propaganda on state TV tells us only crazy women want to have abortions instead of using condoms, or women only want to kill poor, sick babies,” she added.

Activists are also finding ways around the new restriction on emergency contraception, and lack of sex education in schools. In 2017, the government has introduced a law requiring a prescription for the morning-after pill, now it is no longer available over a pharmacy counter.

Outraged by this new bill, a group of doctors across Poland set up ‘Doctors Help Women’ in September 2017, which offers appointments to women and then distributes the morning-after pill. So far, the group has helped more than 1,000 women.

Following the Black Protest, social media forums where women can talk and exchange advice about reproductive services have been created by new movements, such as the Ogolnopolski Strajik Kobiet (‘Polish Women on Strike’) – a group of “pissed-off women and rational men”. The group has also published a list of doctors in Poland who refuse women contraception and abortion.

Activists and celebrities are also working to find ways of educating teenagers about sex, since an inclusive sex education system doesn’t exist in Poland’s schools. Instead of sex education, children are given “Preparation for Family Life” lessons, deeply entrenched in conservative values, which teach children abstinence until marriage.

Last year, politicians voted down a bill to increase spending on sex education, despite the fact that more than 15,000 teenage pregnancies are documented every year, and sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-rates are increasing, according to women’s rights activists Dazed spoke to. In 2017 87 per cent of women have reported experiencing sexual harassment.

Activists from the SPUNK foundation are working to give teenagers practical advice through independent lessons at schools’ request. A founding member, Anna Jurek, explains: “Children tell me they’re being taught that condoms do not protect against HIV because they have really small holes, and the best form of protection is the natural method.”

Wanting to break the taboo around sex education, Anja Rubik, a prominent Polish model created #SexEdPl social media campaign in 2017. In short videos, Polish artists and public figures discuss consent, masturbation, contraception and coming out as gay. In one video – ‘Gay is okay’ – Robert Biedron tells about his own experience of telling his mother he was gay: “She cried a lot, she said I would die of AIDs... it’s a shame that no one prepared her. If there had been proper sexual education at schools... she wouldn’t have had to go through all that pain.”

“I’m scared to think about what my children will learn at school,” said Nina. The now mother-of-two children took her son to the Black Protests. “I want him to know that no government can decide for you, or your body. You have a voice and you can use it.”