At least 34,000 women in Poland are known to have sought abortions illegally or abroad since the country introduced a near total ban on terminations a year ago.
According to Abortion Without Borders (AWB), an organisation that helps women access safe abortion services, more than 1,000 Polish women have sought second-trimester abortions in foreign clinics since the country passed draconian new laws.
AWB said its figures are likely to just be a snapshot of the true number of Polish women seeking illegal or foreign abortions in the past year. NGOs have estimated that 80 to 200,000 women a year sought illegal abortions under Poland’s old abortion laws, which still tightly restricted the conditions under which women could seek terminations.
On 22 October last year, Poland’s constitutional court ruled that abortions in cases of foetal defects were unconstitutional and that terminations would be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or if the mother’s health was at risk, which made up only about 2% of legal terminations at the time of the ruling. The law came into effect in January 2021.
In the past year, at least 460 Polish women seeking second-trimester abortions travelled to England, according to AWB, where terminations can be carried out up to 24 weeks, and beyond that in exceptional circumstances. The charity says it has helped women travel from Poland to Belgium, Germany, Spain and the Czech Republic to access legal abortions.
Of those who sought its services in the 12 months since the legislation was announced, AWB says at least 18,000 women were helped by its affiliate group Women Help Women, an organisation that facilitates postal access to abortion pills.
The figures were released in the same week as a report by Human Rights Watch, including evidence from 14 other organisations, including Amnesty International and International Federation for Human Rights, said women and girls in Poland are facing “incalculable harm” due to the new abortion legislation.
“The constitutional tribunal ruling is causing incalculable harm – especially to those who are poor, live in rural areas, or are marginalised,” said Urszula Grycuk, international advocacy coordinator at the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) in Poland, one of the groups that contributed to the report.
Mara Clarke, the founder of AWB, told the Guardian: “We’re seeing more women [access our services] with foetal abnormality since the law changed. We’re hearing from our service users that the severity of foetal abnormality is being downplayed by doctors and that in some cases doctors are wilfully delaying diagnosis [so that women find it more difficult to access an abortion].”
Abortion has always been tightly controlled in Poland, and was banned until 1932, when the law changed to allow legal abortion for medical reasons or in cases of rape or incest.
The October 2020 ruling resulted in a wave of national protests, with thousands of women and girls across the country dressed in black taking to the streets in a national strike. An estimated 100,000 people demonstrated against the new legislation in Warsaw.