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What U.S. women can learn from Poland’s recent abortion restrictions

"It may be difficult to get abortions in Poland, but we have our ways," Polish feminist Krystyna Kacpura says.
A protest against the abortion ban in Warsaw
A protest against Poland’s abortion ban in Warsaw on Jan. 27, 2021.Krzysztof Zatycki / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

WARSAW, Poland — Americans fearing the worst if the Supreme Court repeals Roe v. Wade could look to the Poles for tips about how to fight for abortion rights and find ways around harsh government-imposed restrictions.

Poland, along with Malta, has the strictest abortion restrictions in Europe. It is allowed only in cases of rape, which are difficult to document, or when the life of the woman is endangered. And anyone helping a woman get the procedure for any other reason, including by prescribing pregnancy-terminating medication, could be charged with a crime — similar to what’s already happening in Texas, said Venny Ala-Siurua of Women on Web, an international online abortion service that has been helping women around the world, including thousands in Poland.

“If Roe is abolished, many American women will have to do what Polish women are already doing to get safe abortions,” Ala-Siurua said.

The Poles have a long history of resisting their rulers, including those they have elected, like the conservative Law and Justice party, which was swept into power in 2015.

“It may be difficult to get abortions in Poland, but we have our ways,” one of Poland’s leading feminists, Krystyna Kacpura, head of the Warsaw-based Federation for Women and Family Planning, said in a series of interviews.

U.S. women can learn from strategies Polish women have deployed, said Giselle Carino of Fòs Feminista, an activist organization that fights for women’s rights around the world.

“The regression of abortion rights is always linked to a regression of democratic rights,” she said. “And in the United States in recent years, we have seen that happening, as well.”

One thing people did in Poland when their reproductive rights came under fire was to mobilize the masses.

Kacpura helped organize the massive “Black Monday” street demonstrations across Poland six years ago, which forced the Law and Justice government to back off on plans to ban all abortions, even in cases of rape, which its allies in the powerful Roman Catholic Church had been pushing for. 

Next, Kacpura and groups like hers forged alliances with feminist groups abroad so Polish women could safely consult legitimate doctors online and either schedule procedures or get prescriptions for the “morning-after pill,” which is then mailed to their homes.

Women living in conservative states like Texas or Idaho would likely be forced to do the same by seeking abortion services in states with far fewer restrictions, advocates have said. But that can be costly.

“The problem is that many Polish women cannot afford to travel to another country, and in the poorer parts of the country many don’t have access to the internet,” Kacpura said.

So they have to rely on black market morning-after pills, “which are not so much dangerous as ineffective,” Kacpura said. “Or they have to find a doctor in Poland who will perform an abortion, which can be done but is very difficult.”

In Poland, a country of nearly 40 million people, only several hundred doctors are left who are still willing to perform abortions.

“A lot of doctors have families and understandably do not want to take the risk,” said a Warsaw gynecologist who asked to not be identified.

Those who do, however, stretch the “risk of life to the pregnant woman” clause in the Polish law to justify abortions or simply say the fetuses died as a result of miscarriages, a member of Poland’s abortion underground said.

Very few abortions due to rape are approved, because the Polish government has set up so many legal roadblocks that by the time the procedure gets the green light, it’s too late, the members said. As a result, many rape victims go straight to local advocacy groups, which steer them to doctors willing to help.

Kacpura said the same network that helps Polish women was mobilized to help Ukrainian refugees who began pouring over the border into Poland after Russia invaded. The group included a number of women who said they had been raped by Russian soldiers, she said.

"I can’t go into too much detail. That is top secret," Kacpura said. "But there is a whole network of gynecologists in Poland who have volunteered to help the Ukrainian women and who have even been able to provide them with morning-after pills that are only available with a prescription."

The Polish government is aware that is happening, the members said, but it often turns a blind eye, because there is a shortage of doctors, and it fears a backlash from women both at home and around the world.

“While Poland is 90 percent Catholic, most Poles support less restrictions on abortions,” Kacpura said. “Those that want a complete ban are a minority, but they are the reliable voters Law and Justice needs to stay in power.”

Just as in the U.S., the battle in Poland over abortion "is a huge ideological war between a democratic side and a fundamentalist side that wants to keep the patriarchy in place, that resents the advances women have made," Kacpura said.

"It wasn't so long ago that abortion was legal in Poland and women from Western European countries were coming here for their procedures," she said.

Kacpura's advice to U.S. women is to hit the streets and "stay there for as long as you can while you find ways to support each other in the face of reproductive injustice."

"If you don't, many women will suffer. Many will die," she said.

Lauren Egan reported from Poland and Corky Siemaszko from New York City.