Katie Toth – Abortion in Poland: What Will Tusk’s New Day for Women Bring? 

Feminists in Poland are suspicious about new prime minister Donald Tusk’s promises to improve abortion rights, given his own record on women’s rights and a long history of using the issue of abortion as a political weapon.

Katie Toth is a senior reporting fellow with New Eastern Europe and an Erasmus Mundus scholar with the Vaclav Havel Joint Master Programme in European Politics and Society.

Cross-posted from Green European Journal

Hot water, running over a pregnant belly, under beige and purple shower tiles. An orange cat, crawling through the litter box. In 2023, only a couple months after abortion, doula Wiktoria Szymczak moved to Kraków from Warsaw. She was helping a stranger end a pregnancy in her apartment bathroom. Earlier in the day, Szymczak had got a call from a client who needed more help than anticipated, whom we will call Agata to protect her privacy. Previously, Szymczak had told her how to pursue one of the few legal methods left for obtaining an abortion within the country. It is still legal to go online and order abortion pills for yourself in the mail through a dealer based outside Poland (Szymczak recommends medical non-profits like “Women Help Women”). Agata went online and bought the pills to end her pregnancy. 

But “she miscalculated”, Szymczak recalls. The pregnancy was further along than they thought, and they were going to need more medication to end it. “As an abortion doula, I obviously have the pills at home,” she says. But Szymczak is also a newly-practicing lawyer, and she brings her fresh knowledge of Poland’s legal landscape into her activism. So as a doula who collaborates with other abortion activists, she had a strict rule for herself and others on her team: you never give out your own abortion pills to a client in Poland. “You hold their hand or support them while they order their own.” When you give the pills to someone else, you are putting unregistered drugs into Polish circulation – and that crosses a legal line. “I am always the one making sure nobody does stupid things that can get them arrested,” she says. 

At one’s own risk 

Agata had already taken mifepristone and some misoprostol, but she needed more of the second pill. Obtaining more would take at least two more days. On the phone, Agata was a mess, erratic, and “very shaky emotionally”. Szymczak did not want her to wait any longer. Agata’s abortion would have to happen at Szymczak’s apartment, in a quiet corner of Kraków at the end of a tramline. 

Szymczak called a friend from the network to confirm the correct dosage, telling her to keep their lawyer’s phone number on hand. Szymczak did not know Agata beyond a few chats they had online. And Agata’s boyfriend had become increasingly controlling, which meant Szymczak didn’t know how he would react after the abortion was done. Would he call the police? “Don’t worry,” Szymczak’s friend joked. “We’ll print t-shirts for your court date like we did for Justyna.” In March 2023, Warsaw abortion-rights activist Justyna Wydrzyńska was sentenced to eight months of community service for helping a pregnant woman get abortion pills. 

The next morning, Szymczak and her partner made Agata breakfast and drove her home. “The whole time I was thinking that I might go to jail or I might get arrested,” Szymczak says now. She still might, in theory. In Poland, the law that saw Wydrzyńska convicted less than a year ago remains in force. Poland has a near-total ban on abortion with exceptions if the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act (such as rape) or if the pregnant person’s life is at risk. 

Szymczak says she saw women denied hospital abortions, despite the fact that their situations met the legal requirements. A “conscientious objection to abortion” law means doctors do not need to perform or refer patients for an abortion if this contradicts their religious views. And other doctors often fear strict readings of the legal code that could penalise them if they decide too quickly to protect their patient from a dangerous pregnancy. 

Szymczak is sharing her story because she is tired of waiting for something to change. “[Agata] was lucky. And I was lucky,” she says. “Lucky that I had [the pills] at the time, and … lucky that I was willing to do this.” She does not want luck to decide the outcome anymore. “Women in Poland deserve to go to a doctor, say that they don’t want to continue the pregnancy, and be given all of the pills that they need. If we look at other European countries, somehow it’s okay for women there to be treated like humans.” 

Difficult history 

For more than 30 years, Poland has been home to a ban on abortion with very few exceptions, leaving people like Szymczak to fill the gap. Under the conservative Law and Justice party which ruled Poland from 2015 to 2023, those restrictions were even further tightened both on paper and in practice. A 2021 court decision forbade abortion due to significant foetal abnormality, and in one high-profile case, a woman who miscarried found prosecutors for the Constitutional Tribunal going through her sewage system to find the foetus. 

But over the past few months, a waterfall of changes suggests a new day in Poland may be coming for supporters of abortion rights. In his first address as prime minister in December 2023, Donald Tusk promised “a programme so that every Polish woman feels a change in the treatment of motherhood, protection of mothers and access to legal abortion.” And just a day before he spoke, the European Court of Human Rights declared that the law against abortions in the case of foetal abnormalities infringed on an individual’s right to privacy. Responding to the decision, Federa, the organisation that fights for reproductive rights in Poland, said that it was only a first step in their work to liberalise Polish law: “We will not rest until every woman in Poland is guaranteed the right to decide about her life.” 

But getting to this point has not been easy – and many feminists say they will view these political promises with suspicion until they see actual results. This is largely due to a long history in which abortion rights have been used as a political weapon at the expense of women and their bodies. Polish feminist, Sławomira Walczewska, traces this back to the last days of communist rule. 

Walczewska remembers a famous off-the-record human rights conference in the 1980s, where hundreds of people from around the world had gathered in Poland for workshops and panels talking about human rights. But when she went to a discussion on women’s rights and abortion – when abortion rights had already faced increasing restrictions and anti-choice mobilisation – the room was empty. Even the panellists decided to go elsewhere. Walczewska remembers her indignation. At the closing plenary – filled with hundreds of people – she called out the organisers, demanding that the next conference take women’s issues seriously. 

“I was a nobody in this space full of really great activists,” she says. Some of them had gone to prison for years over their views, a badge of honour in the pro-democracy circles; she could feel herself shaking. 

Walczewska remembers the applause from the audience. She also remembers the chairman’s glare. “He was a first-class activist for human rights and would never say that he is misogynist. It would be too primitive for him,” she says. But his face was boiling with rage. “If such beautiful people don’t want to hear anything about women’s rights, what about the barbarians – the people who are openly misogynist?” 

The compromise 

For Walczewska, this is the story of the Polish approach to women’s rights over and over again: useful until they are not. By 1989, only one of the many women who had organised anti-communist newspapers and political activity, Grażyna Staniszewska, was sitting at Poland’s Round Table to discuss the country’s democratic reforms. 

In 1989, under the last communist government, a draft bill making abortion completely illegal was presented to the legislature. However, the politicians agreed not to debate the abortion issue until after the new elections. Historian Sylwia Kuźma explains that the “Polish historiographical consensus” around the time frames this bill as a communist effort to “cause quarrel within the opposition,” just as democratic institutions took their first steps. Thus, the refusal to argue the issue became a symbol of careful democratic leaders refusing to take the communist bait. However, this decision can also be read another way – setting aside a discussion that would have been relevant to the democratic experience of half the population, all in the name of something perceived to be more important. 

The late Maria Janion, a leading Polish literary critic, feminist, and member of the Solidarity movement who had been instrumental in bringing the new government into power, was one of the people arguing the abortion debate must be shelved for later. In the respected Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, she remembered the resulting betrayal: “I claimed that Solidarity must first fight for the freedom and independence of the whole society and then together we can take care of women’s issues. A few years later, Solidarity did take care of women’s issues and we know exactly what happened, and in what manner it did so.” 

By 1992, under a new democratic government, women were in the streets protesting against the draft bill making abortions illegal. They collected over a million signatures which demanded the lower chamber of the Polish parliament (Sejm) put the idea to a referendum. Women knew that public opinion was on their side, and probably, leaders of the legislature did too, because the referendum never happened. Instead, legislators earned the favour of the Catholic Church with a less extreme ban, only allowing abortions in a few extreme exceptions. 

These tactics crossed party lines. Months after abortion was made illegal in 1993, the parties that introduced the law lost political power, and the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance party won control. For years, that party did nothing about abortion. Then in 1997, just before new elections were due, the leadership started talking about a return of abortion rights, Walczewska remembers. “‘Vote for us’ … It was very clear, just manipulative.” The ploy did not work. A liberal and conservative Polish Solidarity coalition government was voted in instead. 

Twenty-six years later, Walczewska sees similarities between that past and the current situation. The Polish Solidarity coalition was dissolved in 2001. Two main rival parties were soon built from its ashes: the conservative Law and Justice, famously opposed to abortion rights, and the centrist Civic Platform. From 2015 to 2023, Law and Justice governed Poland and became famous for its increasing rollbacks on social issues. In 2023, a diverse coalition of parties came together and cobbled enough votes together to boot Law and Justice out of power. This win was thanks in part to the promise by the new prime minister, Donald Tusk, to reverse tightened restrictions on reproductive rights and make abortions up to 12 weeks legal in Poland for the first time since the fall of communism. This was a pragmatic move on Tusk’s part. After Law and Justice had eliminated one of the few legal exceptions for abortion – severe foetal deformity – forcing women in their second trimester to head out of the country for healthcare, the 2020 and 2021 “Black March”women’s strikes had made it clear: abortion was an issue that many voters would mobilise around. 

Instrumentalising women’s rights 

During the 2023 campaign, Tusk had called on women to vote for his party, Civic Platform, with abortion specifically in mind. Yet in November last year, when Tusk signed a deal to govern alongside more centrist and leftist parties in a new democratic coalition, abortion rights were nowhere to be seen in their first shared mandate. Journalist Anna Kowalczyk was not surprised: “Women’s rights are treated very instrumentally and they are being sacrificed first when there is a need of sacrifice.” 

Politicos will insist that the coalition was a fragile one, and Tusk’s party did not get enough votes to demand a pro-abortion turn once he took office. He had to make friends with more right-leaning agrarian and economy-focused groups, in order to keep the nationalist Law and Justice Party from taking control once again. 

But a look at Tusk’s earlier campaign trail tells a longer story of disregard for women’s voices. At one prominent rally courting the women’s vote, only one female speaker was listed – the Civic Platform’s youngest candidate – and even here, Tusk got her name wrong. And while ostensibly, the slightly broader Civic Coalition (which includes smaller parties that run on a shared ticket with Civic Platform) allowed its members to have diverse views on abortion rights, including anti-abortion views, one feminist was booted from the coalition for saying that, in her belief, abortion should be allowed on demand. Instead, the campaign focused its energy on pushing social media videos of Donald Tusk winking and reclining on a couch, posing as a caring grandfather or a grey-haired sex symbol. Women were voters – objects for campaigns to pursue – but they were not political subjects worth engaging in a respectful way. 

To understand Poland’s approach to abortion rights today, one has to understand the impact of communist history on even the country’s most liberal periods around the issue. In 1932, Poland became the second country after the Soviet Union to legalise abortion in extreme situations such as female health or surviving rape. After Joseph Stalin’s death allowed the socialist bloc countries to turn away from his more extreme pronatalist policies, the country expanded legal abortion access to include “difficult living conditions”, and deaths from abortion plummeted in Poland, from 255 cases a year to 12. 

Yet, in the official discourse, this access was never framed as an individual right, explains Agata Ignaciuk, history of medicine professor at University of Grenada. Instead, “it was a healthcare procedure to solve a problem” – a problem for the family or for the common good. Ignaciuk says that in other countries at the time, feminists were arguing for abortion rights to be codified. “In Poland, it was more like, ‘well, abortion should be legal, but it’s a necessary evil and it is dangerous, potentially harmful, it could lead to infertility.’ Even at its most accessible,” she explains. 

One 1988 survey found that even while 0.6 per cent of women approved of abortion morally, 37 per cent said they would have an abortion if they did not want a child. Looking at the numbers, Małgorzata Fuszara in the journal Signs noted that one must not assume “that women who have abortions approve of them or believe they are not sinning.” 

In Ignaciuk’s research, she found that magazines and medical literature rarely swayed from the “fixed framing” of abortion as best done under legal conditions, but still dangerous and ideally avoided – a last resort. The goal with legal abortion was to prevent death, not provide female autonomy. She says this longstanding perception made it difficult for abortion advocates to stand up for abortion rights during the fall of communism, when the draft bill making most abortions illegal came into play. “It has an impact on how there is this … difficulty to develop this idea that abortion is a woman’s right, a human right,” she says. “And make it resonate with the broader society.” 

The question remains: what to do about this now? Szymczak, the abortion doula, says that after decades of restrictions on abortion, Polish healthcare workers are sometimes stuck in the past. In her doula practice, she hears from women who go to hospital after a miscarriage or problems with a pharmacological abortion. Too often, she says, they’re subjected to hospital procedures that feel punitive and, when not medically indicated, can add needless risk. Legal changes will need to be followed by support for doctors, like new equipment and wider training on the latest practices. 

Before that point, another question is how to get there. In the major cities that are his strongholds, the prime minister is under immense social pressure to implement reforms. The Sejm’s YouTube channel now has 650,000 subscribers and many Poles watch the proceedings closely. In January, Tusk told the country’s top television stations he would put forward a bill legalising abortion for the first 12 weeks “with some conditions”. More conservative-leaning politicians in his coalition have argued instead for a return to the so-called 1993 compromise, or for the referendum that feminists fought for three decades ago. Szymczak does not want to see either of these alternatives. She says public opinion is not always reflected in a referendum because “people on the ‘winning’ side will often stay home.” 

Besides, she argues, the time is over for gathering public opinion on a pregnant person’s individual decisions. For many women, technological and social shifts have made abortion even more personal than it has always been. It is often not even a “decision between a woman and her doctor” anymore, as western feminists used to say in the 1990s. Now it is possible, with an internet connection and a mailing address, to do this completely on your own. Still, people like Szymczak do not want women to feel alone doing it. 

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