By Ania Filipowicz
On the night of the 14th of March, the Polish government, along with other European countries, decided to close the country’s borders. While all eyes are turned towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to lose sight of those who face new pandemic-caused challenges in other health-related struggles. Though abortion in Poland is currently tantamount to a taboo, it is still a reality for many women regardless of legality. Contrary to many European countries, abortion in Poland is only legal in three cases: when pregnancy poses a threat to a woman’s health or life, if the fetus is not healthy, or when pregnancy is a result of a criminal act.
Lack of access to legal abortions for those who want it forces many women in Poland to seek solutions on their own. Women who want to have an abortion in Poland and do not fit into the abortion ban exceptions have two options to relatively safely interrupt their pregnancy without breaking the Polish criminal code: a pharmacological abortion or accessing an abortion clinic abroad. Both of these are highly dependent on foreign networks, the access to which is currently threatened by the COVID-19 restrictions.
The pharmacological abortion, or so-called ‘home abortion’, can be used safely until the 12th week of pregnancy. In Poland, it is only legal if administered by the pregnant woman herself, as help with abortion, such as selling medication or a doctor’s involvement, is considered a crime under Polish law. Consequently, Polish women depend on foreign sources for abortion medication. Polish law made purchasing the pills from abroad a challenge even before the closed borders, as health facilities cannot assist with the process, and only a few organisations provide information on safe abortion in the country. Therefore, in the initial days of the lockdown, these organisations were unable to give a definitive message on whether the closed borders would impact deliveries of the pills. Only after a few days, Aborcyjny Dream Team, an organisation that focuses on promoting safe abortion in Poland, informed on their Facebook page that one of the delivery sources for the medication works without any interruptions. Whilst being aware of their informative but impartial role, they noted that a pharmacological abortion, if applicable, may pose fewer, if any, challenges when compared with travelling to access an abortion clinic abroad during current restrictions to movement.
However, for those who, for any reason, cannot perform a “home abortion,” their only option would be to go abroad to a clinic, for example in the Netherlands or in Germany. Travelling to another country can be a significant financial burden for many women in Poland, where average wages are considerably lower than in western Europe. This is considered to be a problem even without taking into account the logistical complications and additional financial expenses due to the patchwork of COVID-19 travel restrictions in place. On the 11th of December 2019 an organisation, Aborcja bez Granic (Abortion without Borders), began their activity in Poland by making financial support at last available for those who request it. Now, as the travel expenses grow due to reduced transportation options and border closures, their work has become even more crucial in the fight for abortion access for Polish women.
It is however uncertain how long the borders will be closed. Additionally, even if the restrictions on Polish side lessen, it is not guaranteed that other countries, on which Polish abortion access depends, will follow. The future of European political decisions is rather unsure and may put many Polish women in an uncertain and difficult position. As of the 20th of March, Aborcyjny Dream Team have informed that already two countries with abortion clinics used by Polish women, Slovakia and Germany, were out of reach for those who want to have an abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy. Countries that are still potentially accessible for Polish women who seek an abortion clinic are the Netherlands and the UK, according to Aborcyjny Dream Team. However, they still list a number of travel difficulties on the way and the situation is changing rapidly. Furthermore, the clinics in these countries may not operate fully in the time of the novel coronavirus pandemic or may be overwhelmed with the growing number of patients.
In the time where the novel coronavirus outbreak will almost certainly be followed by an economic crisis, there is an expected increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies, potentially due to the fact that many people do not want to have children in times of financial instability. The economic impact of COVID-19 is already resulting in many people being laid off and businesses struggling to survive, so the economy’s future is not reliable. Compounding the economic reasons, access to modern contraception or the “morning-after pill,” which in Poland is only available on prescription, may be limited due to the overwhelmed healthcare system with growing coronavirus cases.
Only three months after Abortion without Borders eased access to abortion for Polish women with their financial support, COVID-19 made its way through Europe, making women who already may face stigmatisation additionally exposed to stress and feelings of worry. Hopefully, thanks to the organisations that help Polish women in need of abortion on an everyday basis with emotional, informational, strategic and financial support, COVID-19 can be seen as yet another challenge in the existing fight for better abortion access. Now, more than ever, clear information from a trusted source is needed for women who decide to have abortion in countries where it highly depends on the foreign networks. All things considered, we will only be able to see the actual impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on abortion access for Polish women after it slows down, when time allows to have a closer look at its nuances.
If you wish to support the efforts of Abortion without Borders visit the webpage https://abortion.eu/ and look for the “donation” button at the bottom.