A new government plan in Poland could mean that every pregnancy must now be registered and recorded in a national database. This has sparked concern about the government using this information to track and imprison those who have had unlawful abortions. Last year Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal tightened the already conservative abortion law to permit terminations of pregnancies only in the circumstance of rape or incest, or if the woman’s life is at risk. The decision excluded fetal defects, which are responsible for most abortions in the country.
Coinciding with this government plan and strict abortion restrictions comes a newly proposed bill to criminalise abortion in Poland entirely. The bill rejects the reasons where pregnancy termination is currently allowed. The punishment for abortion would be from five years to a full life sentence. Those prosecutable include the pregnant person and any medical professionals who undertake the procedure, or anyone involved in aiding the abortion in any way e.g. the purchasing or supplying abortion pills. The bill has not yet passed but its announcement is very worrying for Polish citizens and is undoubtedly a significant regression in the realm of women’s rights. It is bizarre to witness such an absolute ban being presented to the government when abortion in Poland has been legalised (albeit under fluctuating restrictive guidelines) since 1932. Human rights organisations are concerned – Esther Major, Amnesty International’s Senior Research Adviser for Europe stating:
“Poland already has a draconian and violative framework for abortion service provision. Poland’s parliamentarians must unequivocally reject this sinister bill, which if passed, would only increase the likelihood of women and girls suffering physical and psychological harm and even losing their lives.”
The bill proposed by the Pro Right to Life Foundation aims to define an embryo as a ‘child’ from conception. Therefore, to attempt to terminate a pregnancy would equate to attempting to cause harm to a person, and if it results in death, guilty of killing a person. Those charged could be sentenced to serving the same period in prison as an inmate who has committed murder. Already, women from Poland have been travelling over the years to neighbouring countries to access the pregnancy termination procedure. If this bill is passed, leaving the country will be the only way to access abortion services. Poland is not the only country facing harsh abortion laws.
Closer to home, in Northern Ireland, abortion was not decriminalised until October 2019. Having grown up there, it was a well-known fact that abortions could only take place in England. The 1967 Abortion Act permitted abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, but this was not extended to Northern Ireland. Despite abortion finally being legalised in NI after decades of criminalisation “1,014 women travelled to England from Northern Ireland in 2019 for an abortion procedure under a scheme funded by the UK Government” with only 22 pregnancy terminations taking place in Northern Ireland hospitals between 2019 and 2020.
This is a result of the Northern Irish government being slow in implementing the availability of abortion services: “concerns have been repeatedly raised in Westminster, and beyond, that full commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland has not taken place.” Although abortion has now been decriminalised, the procedure remains difficult to gain access to within the country and a lot of controversies still surrounds abortion because of conflicting community beliefs.
Along with conflicting beliefs comes a conflict in understanding. In 2012 Savita Halappanavar aged 31 from Galway died from sepsis after being denied her request for an abortion despite her impending miscarriage at 17 weeks pregnant. The law at the time in the Republic of Ireland condemned abortion if a fetal heartbeat was still present. Savita died as a result. In Poland, a woman, Izabela (whose surname has been withheld) who was 22 weeks pregnant also died after going into septic shock following the death of the fetus she was carrying. The doctors would not drain the uterus until the fetus had died because of the strictly regimented laws on abortion. Izabela died in September 2021, but her death was not announced until November. Afterwards, the government put out a statement, reminding doctors that there are exceptions to Poland’s strict abortion laws, such as the pregnant woman’s life being at risk. Despite abortion being legally justified in select circumstances, the sheer uncertainty of the law prevents necessary procedures from taking place, so even though the abortion is legal it still isn’t carried out because of medical practitioners’ fear of imprisonment and the severe social unrest surrounding abortion.
In the wake of Izabela’s death a wave of protests in Poland have arisen and voices speaking up about the archaic dictation of women’s rights by the government. This public outrage feels much the same as that felt in Ireland and Northern Ireland after Savita Halappanavar’s preventable death in 2012. Her story went global and put Ireland and Northern Ireland’s abortion laws under a microscope for the whole world to see. Without that pressure of mass scrutiny, I do not doubt that abortion in Ireland and Northern Ireland would remain illegal today. Public outcry has the potential to be enough to block the regressive proposal of criminalising all abortion in Poland. However, with abortion laws there already being so restrained because of largely conservative and religious viewpoints, the dread of an impending women’s rights disaster is worryingly justified.
The belief that life starts at conception is a commonly religion-based stance. Other opinions state that life begins when the very first cells of the embryo form or with the first beat of the heart. Some believe it is when the foetus most resembles a person, or when medically, it is believed the unborn could survive being outside the womb. Additionally, there is the belief that life does not truly begin until birth. The list goes on. There are countless religious, philosophical, and scientific stances on when life begins, what rights, if any, an unborn child has, if an unborn child should even be referred to as an ‘unborn child’, if terminating a pregnancy is right or wrong, if it should be allowed or condemned, in what cases it should be allowed, if ever. It is very revealing that the age-old religious stance is still the baseline belief system governing abortion laws and opinions today when so many other voices and theories and standpoints have existed and developed alongside it. No matter what stance, what belief, what opinion, shouldn’t the priority be preserving the lives of those primarily affected? Women, trans and non-binary people face marginalisation in all areas and abortion laws and stigma prove that healthcare is no exception. The person who needs help and safety is currently all too often denied it by people outside of their bodies, minds, and situations.
This lack of human rights has detrimental effects on those affected, forcing dangerous alternative options to become their only viable option. The ordering of abortion pills and self-inflicted bodily harm to terminate a pregnancy is a route that too many have had to go down. An exact figure on experiences will never be known, but the trauma caused will be lifelong.
Ethical questions surrounding topics like abortion create a divide. This is to be expected. What is concerning, is that the divide is actively rendering the procedure and costing women their mental health, safety, financial stability and all too often, their lives. Pro-lifers strive to stop all abortions, but such procedures have been traced as far back as 1550 BC in the Egyptian era. There have always been and will continue to be people who for alternating reasons, do not want or cannot have their pregnancy. Those opposed to abortion fear that relaxing the laws will result in a flood of pregnancy terminations. Indeed, more abortion procedures will be undertaken medically and will be recorded and retained in this case, but the only difference would be that these procedures would be recorded. There is no way of knowing how many abortions have happened in silence, that still happen in silence. Surely, the option for a safe termination procedure should at the very least be available and exist separately and away from individuals opposing views in respect for those affected.
Concerns remain active with the lack of progress on abortion availability in Northern Ireland, despite it having been legalised for just over two years now:
“In July 2021, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland issued a direction to the Department of Health, the Minister for Health, the Health and Social Care Board, and to the First and Deputy First Minister, to “commission and make abortion services available in Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and no later than 31 March 2022”
Proving that such procedures can be legalised on paper but following through with the level of support and attentiveness required for such an appealed-for medical service can remain as neglected as the days of its criminalisation. The acceptance and granting of pregnancy terminations in Northern Ireland are very much ‘in progress’ despite the change in the law. Witnessing the drastic change in the proposal of abortion law in Poland encapsulates the ever-present apprehension of worsening control and regression of women’s rights. If the Pro Right to Life Foundation bill goes forward it will act as chilling proof that even our current ‘progressive’ society is subject to significant change. Thus, instilling the fear that abortion laws will always be this uncertain and lives will continue to be lost because of it.