iot is Saturday afternoon, and the centre of Chełm, a Polish city on the Ukrainian border, is empty except for one woman and her toddler. A monument to “the fallen sons” of the 1920 Polish-Soviet war marks the middle of the market square, surrounded by two churches, a few closed restaurants, and a boarded-up wooden booth with a sign reading, “cheap footwear”. The Catholic Basilica – a former Eastern Orthodox church – dominates the landscape and, locals say, the social life of the town.
Chełm is in one of the poorest areas in Poland, a stronghold of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party, dove il birthrate is -6.1 and people in their 60s comprise the largest age group. The city – once among Poland’s most religiously and ethnically diverse, with a pre-2nd?second world war population split evenly between Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews – was the site of one of the first postwar anti-Jewish Pogroms and, more recently, among the first local councils to declare itself an “LGBT-free zone."
“It’s a dying shithole and we’re stuck in it,” says 33-year-old Monika, a mother of three who owns a local print-shop with her husband. She is the only person in Chełm officially collecting signatures under a citizen’s bill to legalise abortion in Poland. She dreams of moving to the Czech Republic, a “normal country," lei dice, where there is a “division between church and government".
Monika grew up in Chełm and first became pregnant at 22, while at university. She never considered an abortion. “I thought then that it would be my sin, and a crime, and murder," lei dice. Monika graduated two years later with a master’s degree and two babies.
Abortion was not discussed in the city, neither publicly nor in hushed tones among young women, according to Monika, save for high school screenings of the discredited 1980s anti-abortion film The Silent Scream. “If anyone ever mentioned it,” Monika says, “it was along the lines of, ‘I would never do it.’ It was something that people did out there in the big world, in these progressive, leftist countries. Not here.”
After her third daughter was born three years ago, Monika approached her gynaecologist to fit her with an intrauterine device (IUD). Her children were all born by caesarean section, a procedure that places the woman under increased risk each time it is performed. With her third pregnancy, Monika felt “we were cutting it too close. A fourth could end badly for me.” She was tired of the side-effects from the pill and, because contraception is not publicly funded in Poland, the monthly prescriptions were a financial problem. The doctor misled her, saying she could only get an IUD privately. “That costs 1,500zł to 2,000 zł (£300 – £400). I didn’t have that type of money,” Monika says. She tried other doctors but was told the same thing each time.
In ottobre 2020, when the wave of protests against the near-total ban on abortion – the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism – reached Chełm, Monika didn’t join the women on the streets. She was busy and needed to pick up her toddler from the nursery. “‘Let others worry about it, the ones who still want to have children and who might end up in hospital with problems,’ I thought. I was safe, I didn’t have to comment,” Monika recalls.
But as the protests raged on into 2021, she began thinking about abortion more often. “I think I read Aborcyjny [aborto] Dream Team’s entire website and a lot of advice books, and I came to the conclusion that it isn’t anything bad. It’s not hurting or killing anyone,” Monika says.
Quindi, nel mese di settembre 2021, Monika was faced with that reality when she became pregnant for a fourth time. She immediately went online and found a safe way to get abortion pills sent to her home. A week later a cardboard package from the Netherlands arrived in her postbox. “I was so happy when I saw it. I started crying with joy," lei dice.
She took the pills on a Saturday after work – two between her gum and cheek on either side. Her older daughters were at a birthday party, the youngest was watching cartoons. The whole process lasted five hours, by 11pm Monika was showered and asleep. Legal risks were not on her mind.
While aiding someone in an abortion in Poland risks a prison sentence of up to three years, inducing your own miscarriage is not illegal until the 22nd week of pregnancy. Negli ultimi 30 anni, few people have faced court cases on abortion-related charges, but many more have been questioned by the police.
Monika does not regret her abortion but says the experience has changed her. She has started sharing her story with friends, to mixed response, and recently signed her eldest daughter out of religious classes in school, despite teachers’ protests.
“I admit, I used to judge people," lei dice. “Afterwards, I was reading the testimonies of other people online and I thought, ‘Oh God, how stupid I was.’ There are so many of us – one in three. So why are we acting as if we aren’t here at all?"
In her shop, Monika keeps a paper petition out for customers to sign, supporting full access to abortion in Poland. She is still waiting for the first signature.
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