“Our mission is not accomplished yet"

“Our mission is not accomplished yet"

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Poland

“Our mission is not accomplished yet"

Photo: Wanda Nowicka

Wanda Nowicka and Agnieszka Grzybek
Agnieszka Grzybek:
How did it happen that the right to terminate pregnancy was restricted in Poland?

Wanda Nowicka:
There are many reasons. First of all the 1989 transformation in Poland resulted not only in economic and social changes, but also in giving the voice to the new actors on the political scene. There is no doubt that Roman-Catholic Church has become one of the most important new political forces, and various political circles started to take it into account. Some did it because of their beliefs, some for pragmatic reasons, or because they felt thankful to the Church, which, before 1989 supported the opposition. Second, abortion was a topic that allowed introducing simple political divisions, which, in the situation when the old system was collapsing was very convenient. Without hesitation we can put forward the argument that at the beginning of the 1990s, Polish political space has been organized according to the divide „who is for and who is against”. Abortion was — and by the way it still is— constantly used instrumentally; everybody thinks that they can play it out, often it is a replacement topic that is supposed to „cover” other issues. Thirdly, abortion was an easy argument used by the right wing political forces that wanted to convince the public that everything that was associated with the communism should be erased, because it is contaminated by the evil, and contradictory with our values. In this sense the attempt to restrict the right to abortion was treated as blueprint of new better times. Maybe this argument was not so strong, but it did exist in the public debate. All of it gave birth to the severe arguments about worldviews. The consequence of these was a change of the law in 1993.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
Why Polish women didn’t resist when the right to abortion was being taken away from them?

Wanda Nowicka:
Polish women did resist a lot, but they didn’t have tools to express this resistance. In 1989 civil society was very weak, there were no organizations and the ones that appeared afterwards were too weak to effectively resist the right wing machinery supported by the Church. Women had a feeling that their rights are being taken away, but the time was against us. Besides, it is worth mentioning that the voice of the one million and 300 thousand people who supported the idea of referendum on abortion was disregarded, and ultimately this was a Parliament that decided about the restrictive law on family planning and the conditions of the termination of pregnancy.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
How, in this situation, Polish women deal with the termination of pregnancy?

Wanda Nowicka:
First of all Polish women do not obey the law if they think that it works against them. They will do anything, even put their lives on the line, if they do not want to carry on with unwanted pregnancy. It is not of course an easy decision, because it is related to the big burden: financial, logistic and psychological. I’m mentioning the last one because we have to remember that because of the current law many women feel guilty. On one hand they grant themselves a right to make a decision, on the other often times they feel guilty because the whole propaganda talks them into the “post-abortion” syndrome.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
During the past couple of years some attempts have been made to change the abortion law, but they were unsuccessful. Why?

Wanda Nowicka:
The political constellation made it impossible to liberalize the law permanently. The Constitutional Tribunal decision blocked one attempt in 1996, when abortion was considered legal due to the social reasons. In 1997 the Tribunal decided that liberalized law is contradictory to the Constitution of Poland. Then, like today, the judges representing conservative views dominated the Tribunal. Besides, women’s organizations were not able to create the force to which politicians would have to give in to. Most politicians are afraid of the Church and do not want to act against it.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
And what about the doctor’s community? Can women find support there? It did happen in France in the 1970, where doctors, actively supported activism directed towards the elimination of the ban on abortion?

Wanda Nowicka:
We tried to look for doctors’ support.  But we have to remember that in Poland, the doctors’ community was the first to start the fight against the legal abortion. Before the restrictive abortion law was introduced, doctors’ council introduced ban on abortion in to the “medical ethical code”. Part of the doctors’ community was trying to oppose this regulation, but this resistance was futile, because the doctors’ community in Poland is very peculiar: patriarchal, and divided internally into the professional groups. The doctors of other specialties stigmatized gynaecologists as a group interested in abortion for the financial reason, which shouted their mouth immediately.
It is really hard to tell what is doctors’ attitude towards abortion. Majority of them discredits it publically and refuses to perform it, but on the other hand, some of them do it in the underground, but they don’t talk about it, because they profit from it. Which makes our medical community different from the doctors in other countries. There, doctors where always on the side of women, they risked the jailed time, and regardless of the ban they did terminate abortion. This was a case of Canada, Belgium, and France in the time when abortion was illegal.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
The Federation on Women and Family Planning is celebrating 20 years of its existence. From the perspective of these 20 years, what do you think is your biggest success?

Wanda Nowicka:
Federation was created by five organizations, which, at the beginning of the 1990s acted together against the abortion ban. We organized demonstrations, and collected the signatures for referendum on abortion. Quickly we realized that it is going to be a fight that will take years.  Therefore Pro-Femina, Association for the State Neutrality, Polish Feminist Association, Polish Women’s League and YWCA Polska, and the Association of Christian Women and Girls founded a separate organization. Our first goal was to block the abortion ban. We were not able to succeed, so for the years we focused mainly on changing this law.  We documented the consequences of the law for Polish women’s health, and the society. Thanks to us everybody know it is a bad law, and that we do have a large abortion underground here in Poland, from which women suffer the most. In almost every report international instructions recommend that Polish government initiate the change of this bad law. Moreover we are involved in the assistance to women who have a right to legal abortion but they were not able to execute it. We supported Alicja Tysiąc, Barbara Wojnarowska, Bożena Kleczkowska, Agata Lamczak’s mother, who made an attempt to fight for justice. So far our biggest success is Alicja Tysiąc’s case; she has won a case against Poland in the European Tribunal of Justice in Strasburg. Next cases are awaiting the ruling and we count on the fact that the Tribunal will recognize that we are right. Apart from that, an important aspect of our work is counselling and education. For the last 20 years we have a hot line for women, through which we have advised thousands of women. We did a lot for the prevention of the unwanted pregnancy: we promote contraception, and sexual education. For instance the youth group Ponton, which conducts workshops on sexual education in high schools was created within Federation

Agnieszka Grzybek:
And your biggest success, so far was, I think, Langenort?

Wanda Nowicka:
In 2003, the ship of the Danish Foundation’s Women on Waves boarded in Poland for the invitation of the “Ster” Committee: Women Decide. In was the biggest action on behalf of the legal right to terminate abortion. Thanks to the media publicity it allowed, after many years to break the silence around the ban of abortion. As a result of this campaign the support for the legal abortion in Poland, increased by 10%. Besides, the collaborative initiatives of the women’s NGOs and Parliamentary Women’s Group have been initiated, for instance, the draft of the law about the aware parenthood, has been presented to the Sejm (lower chamber on the Parliament) the MP Joanna Senyszyn. This draft unfortunately was never considered, because three consecutive heads of the Parliament, would not allow it to be voted, in the last moment it was taken away from the deliberation of the Sejm. We feel a strong resentment and disappointment, that besides the real chance for changing the law, the left backed up and did not take the challenge.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
If previous attempts to liberalized the law failed, maybe the victories in front the European Tribunal of Human rights can support us in the effort to change the abortion law?

Wanda Nowicka:
We definitely cannot count on the fact that any decision issued by the Strasburg Tribunal will contribute to the radical change of law in Poland or liberalization of antiabortion law. But we can change the law on the smaller scale. For instance thanks to Alicja Tysiąc victory in the Tribunal,  the possibility to appeal the doctors decision to the plenipotentiary of the patients in Poland has become an option. Before, the refusal of the doctor to perform an abortion was final. For the last few months we conducted a camping to encourage women to use this possibility to appeal. The law is still too weak, because, even though every decision can be changed that does mean that the women will be able to execute this change. Doctors, who refuse perform an abortion, invoke the conscience clause and women, instead of appeal would rather go abroad and solve their problem there. One of the issues that are awaiting now from Strasburg Tribunal is a ruling about conscience clause. The win on this issue would a real success.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
Last year Federation organized a public hearing in Sejm about the abortion tourism in Poland. How big is the scale of this phenomenon in Poland?

Wanda Nowicka:
It is hard to talk about real data here; we can only speak about estimates. It might be few or  few women thousands women a year. For sure however the phenomenon of abortion tourism is becoming more and more popular and more women decide to go abroad. They do that because they are not sure if they will be able to undergo a procedure under safe conditions in Poland. And, because the costs are comparable, they would rather use the clinic abroad, rather then looking for the procedure here— underground. We must however remember that only women of higher economic status can afford that. If the law will not be changed on the near future, we can imagine that the underground will disappear, because women will be going abroad.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
If abortion tourism is more and more popular, and if Polish women— not necessarily officially— can use pharmacological an abortion, what is the point to changing the law? Why change it if we are able to manage?

Wanda Nowicka:
Women not always can manage. Yes, women in Poland rarely die from illegal abortion, like women in, for instance Africa.  But it is hard to say that everything is all right. It is not a normal situation that women are forced to go abroad to use medical services.  And we have to remember that this possibility is available only for Polish women of higher economic status, who are privileged in other areas as well. The law has to change- we live in Europe and it is hard to agree to the fact that in most European countries—most of neighbouring countries— but Poland, have better situation then us in this regard.  Only here women have been devoid of the right to choose. The right to decide about one’s live is a human right and it is a state’s duty to respect that.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
Looking from the perspective of the last 20 years of the Federation’s activity, how did the way of talking about reproductive rights has changed in Poland? Was the fight for a right to abortion replaced by the fight for a right to have child, particularly if we take into account, for insane the battle about in vitro?

Wanda Nowicka:
I don’t see any contradiction here. Reproductive rights include the right to use the medical procedure if the person cannot have children, but also the right not to have children if you don’t want them. It is however a fact that it is hard to reach social consciousness with the argument that right to terminate abortion is also a human right. We have to deal with the myth of life at conception that has been built, and according to which women are less important, women don’t count. In the midst of the in vitro debate its opponents compared in-vitro to abortion they sais it it „a murder of the unborn”. Everybody was disgusted with such comparison. But it does not impact the discourse on abortion positively if abortion is used as an extreme example. It is not abortion that is horrible, but the manipulation that is done by the opponents of the in vitro.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
We will have Parliamentary elections this year in Poland. Is there a chance that the new Parliament will liberalize the abortion law?

Wanda Nowicka:
Obviously I would wish that would happen very much, and we will lobby for that, but it will be every hard because of the current political constellation. First of all we have to deal with the domination of the two right wing parties that fight with each other and this fight silences the left wing votes. Second our left wing is still quite weak. Maybe if the left would be more engaged and better prepared we could achieve more, at least bring an abortion back into the public debate. Let’s hope that the left wing will decide to take on this topic during the campaign, and it will do that with the true commitment; professionally and persistently, and that abortion will be an issue that will be crucial for the ways in which Polish women and men will vote during the Parliamentary elections.

Agnieszka Grzybek:
What are Federations’ plans for the future?

Wanda Nowicka:
I would be very happy if I could close the office and say that our mission is accomplished, but I’m afraid we will have to be active for much longer. At this moment we focus on proving that Polish membership in the European Union can have positive effects on women’s rights, including the right to abortion. Thanks to the new EU directive on the transborder medical assistance, the new possibilities appear:  for instance women who have a legal right to abortion, will be able to do that abroad and the NFZ (National Health Fund) will have to refund it. This requires an information campaign, and such campaign can force NFZ to be more pro-active on behalf of the execution of access to legal abortion, here in Poland. We will also make an effort to make pharmacological abortion accessible in Poland: according the European Union’s law, if the medicine is registered in other EU countries the registration of it in Poland can be much easier. We will continue being active on behalf of liberalization of abortion law, but for it to be successful if re-structurization of Polish political scene is needed. We need the real Polish left wing to emerge and prioritize abortion as an issue. I wish that Kongres Kobiet; the most visible in Poland initiative on women- undertook the subject of abortion as well. I dream that women, who cannot execute the rights that they have, would be determined to execute them and knew how to do it.

Translated by Magdalena Grabowska


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About the Author:
Wanda Nowicka - Feminist activist and the head of the Federation on Women and Family Planning. An author of number of publications on reproductive rights and sexual rights of women. In 2005 she received an award for the activity on behalf of women in Central and east Europe founded by Sigrid Rausing Trust. In 2008 she received prestigious award University-in-Exile Award from the New School for Social Research in New York.




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