WARSAW — In Geneva in late October, the Polish government finally reported on its adherence to the United Nations committee that monitors discrimination against women. The committee had been waiting 10 years for the report, which was due no later than 2010.
The long-awaited document and discussions that followed in the committee keeping track of national actions on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as Cedaw, were no surprise to the nongovernment organizations working on gender equality, nondiscrimination, gender-based violence or sexual and reproductive health and rights. Poland’s submission had been the subject of debate for months. (Poland ratified the Cedaw treaty in 1980.)
The Polish delegation, led by the newly appointed Minister for Equal Treatment, Malgorzata Fuszara, painted a bright picture of the country’s progress in battling the obstacles women and girls face. Unfortunately, some of the obstacles had been left out of the picture. On problems such as access to safe abortion and family planning or the availability of comprehensive sexuality education, the government made no attempt to pretend that it was interested in achieving progress.
The Polish delegation said there was no plan to liberalize the strict abortion law and added that Poland was not planning to conduct research to assess the scale and impact of illegal abortions, which, according to experts and organizations such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning, can number 100,000 a year or more. Neither did ministry officials recognize the need to introduce subsidized contraception or improve access to sexuality education in schools — seemingly obvious solutions for a country so opposed to abortion rights and determined to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and illegal terminations often resulting from them.
Reproductive health and rights have been a joke in Poland for more than 20 years, since the adoption of the Act on Family Planning, Protection of the Human Fetus and Conditions for Pregnancy Termination in 1993. The number of legal abortions dropped from more than 100,000 to about 600 a year as only a woman whose life or health was endangered, whose fetus was severely malformed or when a pregnancy was a result of a crime could request a document entitling her to a termination.
Since the regulations are flawed and poorly implemented, many women meeting these criteria could not obtain the required permissions and had to pay for an abortion abroad or find an illegal one in the country. For some, the ill will of doctors or clerks led to a necessity of giving birth because it was too late to end the pregnancy.
Most recently, a woman in Warsaw was denied the necessary abortion permissions by an ultraconservative doctor who at the time worked as director of one of the publicly funded hospitals. The delays he caused in the name of his Catholic convictions were illegal, and he was dismissed after public outrage and a lengthy investigation ensued. But for the woman and her husband, his decisions meant a sentence of suffering. After giving birth to a baby with anencephaly, the parents had to watch the child die over 10 days.
On television, politicians and Catholic bishops argue about the value of unborn life and claim the current law was a “compromise” worked out among the government, the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Polish people. Meanwhile, the reality is much different. Even today, after more than 20 years of anti-choice propaganda, about 37 percent of Poles demand that the law be liberalized, according to a 2013 study by the Institute of Public Affairs and a 2014 poll.
An abortion underground is a source of huge profits for doctors who do terminations illegally and drug sellers who make money on abortion pills. Many women opt for a trip outside the country if they can afford it. Just one clinic in Germany, located near the border with Poland, reports providing abortions to about a thousand Polish women a year.
For those who want to avoid pregnancy, access to contraception is limited by lack of counseling, ideology, prices and gaps in legislation. There are no reproductive health centers where comprehensive advice on family planning methods can be obtained. In public health care facilities, lines to obstetricians and gynecologists are long; even if you get an appointment, many doctors refuse to prescribe contraceptives, invoking conscientious objection.
The Federation for Women and Family Planning has received many letters and calls from women complaining about the corrupt system — the same doctors who would not provide contraceptive prescriptions in public facilities have no problem doing it in their private commercial practices. This again discriminates against the poorest women.
Teenagers are in a particularly difficult position. Even though the age of consent for sex in Poland is 15, unclear regulations prevent minor girls who are sexually active from getting access to family planning without parental consent. As a result, the adolescent fertility rate remains relatively high in Poland, at 12 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 in 2012, according to World Bank statistics, compared with 4 births in Germany or 5 in Denmark. Financing is another prohibitive factor regarding contraception. Only one type of an older-generation pill is subsidized, and no free condom distribution programs are in place.
Sexuality education has been a battleground in Poland for years, growing to extreme proportions in 2014 when parliament debated a citizens’ bill that could lead to prison sentences for people educating children under 15 about their sexuality. The existing school subject, called “preparation for family life,” is far from neutral in many classrooms, and it is not uncommon to see priests and nuns teaching it.
The pro-choice community is not expecting any improvement on sexual and reproductive health rights now that Donald Tusk, a conservative former prime minister of Poland, has become president of the European Council. The Polish government has a long history of ignoring international recommendations. Here in Poland, even a seemingly simple ratification of the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe document on preventing and combating violence against women as well as domestic violence, is a subject of an absurd debate.
Right-wing politicians build their voter capital by trying to scare people by suggesting that carrying out the document would lead to a mass epidemic of homosexuality and the destruction of the so-called traditional family. An inherent anti-women undertone runs through their statements. Combined with the weakness of the political left, the situation does not leave much room for hope that Poland will begin to fully respect women’s human rights, including reproductive rights, anytime soon.
Anka Grzywacz is the program coordinator for the Federation for Women and Family Planning, the largest nongovernment organization promoting sexual and reproductive health rights in Poland, and a co-founder of the Ponton Group of Sex Educators, both based in Warsaw. She attended the University of Warsaw.