Only two developed countries rolled back abortion rights in the 21st century: the United States and Poland. As Americans grapple with the potential end of the constitutional right to abortion, the history of Poland’s 90-year fight against abortion shows what the end of that right could look like.
The history of abortion in Poland has been a topsy-turvy affair. Before 1932, abortion was prohibited without exception. That year, the Constitutional Court of the young republic legalized abortion when there were clear medical reasons to perform it, for example when the health of the mother was at stake. Abortion is also authorized when a pregnancy results from rape or incest.
This relatively liberal law remained in effect from 1932 to 1956—during the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, the defeat of Nazi forces by the Soviet Union, and the reoccupation of Poland under Joseph Stalin.
The only exception was from 1943 to 1945, during the last two years of the apocalyptic German occupation, which saw millions of Polish civilians killed, including most of the country’s large pre-war Jewish population. In this horrific interregnum, abortion on demand was permitted by direct order of Adolf Hitler, who despised Polish “untermenschen” — or those considered racially or socially inferior — and wanted Poles to have fewer children.
Abortion was also imposed on pregnant Jewish prisoners in the Ravensbrück and Waltrop-Holthausen concentration camps. The Nazis had no ethical problem with abortion – as long as it was performed on what they considered to be the right people. (The Polish anti-abortion movement has capitalized on this history with posters that juxtapose Hitler’s face with the image of an aborted fetus.)
In 1956, during the “Khrushchev Thaw” under Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, the law was further liberalized when the Polish legislature followed Moscow’s lead and repealed its ban on abortion, allowing it in cases where the woman was experiencing “difficult living conditions”.
Not that the Polish communist government encouraged abortion. On the contrary: the authorities hoped to strengthen the country’s reproductive capacity and believed that illegal clandestine abortions were more harmful to women’s reproductive health than legal medical abortions.
However, in practice, abortion in Poland is available on request.
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In the 1950s and 1960s, it was not uncommon for women from European countries where abortion was restricted, including the more “liberal” Sweden across the Baltic Sea, to travel to Poland to abortions because they were more accessible and affordable there.
Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, as did the Polish communist regime. As political and intellectual freedom spread, reproductive rights returned to the pre-war “norm”, and abortion was effectively driven underground – or overseas, for those who could afford it – because of the powerful influence of the Catholic Church. (Over 85% of Poles identify as Catholic, the highest percentage of any European country.)
Since then access to abortion has continued to decline, although the trend has also spawned a vocal movement for abortion and women’s rights, including the Abortion Dream Team.
This movement won a major victory in 2016, during the “black protest”, when thousands of Polish women wearing black umbrellas and other black paraphernalia demonstrated against and stopped legislation proposed by Catholic groups that would have imposed a total ban on abortion.
The Black Protest has sparked protests in other countries with restrictive abortion regulations, including strongly Catholic Ireland. There, a national referendum overturned a similar ban in 2018.
However, in Poland, the Black Protest proved to be a rearguard action in the losing fight for the right to abortion, which culminated last year in a decision of the Constitutional Court which made abortion, or aiding and abetting abortion, a criminal act, with exceptions only for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.
The decision resembles Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s leaked draft opinion that would strike down deer, Jelinksa said. “If you watch the leak, the tone and language is very similar,” she said.
The Tribunal’s exception to protect the lives of mothers has not always been respected. Last September, a Polish woman known as Izabela died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke during the 22nd week, or fifth month, of pregnancy. In January, a woman known as Agnieszka T., who was in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy, died after a fetus’ heart stopped beating and Polish doctors feared she might be breaking the law , refused to perform an abortion.
“Many people in both countries perceive justice institutions as politicized,” said Courtney Blackington, an American Fulbright scholar affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences and the University of Warsaw who has studied the abortion crisis. Poland. “When the new [Polish] decision on abortion came out last year, there were activists who told me they couldn’t respect it because they felt it came from an institution that no longer respected the law.
Polish abortion opponents, she added, “are hyper-aware of what is happening in the United States” and have used their American counterparts as a model for their movement.
“The anti-abortion coalition in the United States is basically the same as the anti-abortion coalition in Poland,” said Agnieszka Graff-Osser, a Polish feminist author and activist who works at the Center for American Studies at the University of Warsaw. She added: “It’s the same movement, the same strategy.”
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Still, Polish abortion rights activists say American women should not despair that the United States will follow Poland in a comprehensive abortion ban. On the one hand, a decision to annul deer would not ban abortion, and many states would continue to allow it. On the other hand, the relatively recent availability of abortion pills may still give people a way to access abortions if doctors stop providing them.
“The pills are a real game-changer,” said Jelinska, of Abortion Dream Team. But they are not without substantial risks. Justyna Wydrzynksa, an Abortion Dream Team activist, is on trial for giving the pill to a woman victim of domestic violence. Jelinska called her case “a powerful reminder of the risks that unjust and outdated laws pose to activists.”
Yet “the Polish example shows that medical abortion with pills and feminist support networks can help [women] surviving such difficult times,” said Abortion Dream Team member Natalie Broniarczyk. “This is what the authorities are most afraid of,” she added.
Members of the Abortion Dream Team said the main lesson that American women should learn from the rollback of abortion rights in Poland is not to sink into despair, but to continue to support each other in finding solutions. ways to obtain safe abortions. Polish activists may have lost one type of abortion access after another in recent decades, but they haven’t given up hope.
Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian based in Riga, Latvia, and guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Culture. Eleonora Balode in Riga and Zuzanna Wieniewska in Warsaw provided research assistance for this article.