Why Polish women are travelling to Germany for abortions
Poland only allows abortions in a limited set of scenarios. So for many women faced with unwanted pregnancies, Germany has become a safe solution.
The cell phone of doctor Janusz Rudzinski is almost constantly ringing.
The native Polish medic is head of the gynaecological branch of a hospital in Prenzlau within the scenic Uckermark region of Brandenburg. And many women from his native land seek him out when they decide to have an abortion.
“Every woman has the right to self-determination, and can decide for themselves about their bodies,” Rudzinski says.
“But in Poland they’re denied this.”
Poland has some of the strictest regulations on abortion in Europe: the procedure is only allowed in cases where the life of the fetus or mother is at risk, or in cases of rape or incest. The Polish government reports that the annual tally of abortions in the country is about 1,000.
A proposal to make the restrictions even greater - including by sending women and doctors to jail - was halted last year amid widespread protests.
The director of a Warsaw association for women’s rights and family planning, Krystyna Kacpura, said that women receive little help in Poland when it comes to preventing unwanted pregnancies: Some doctors will refuse to perform abortions citing their personal principles, while at the same time others will also make the same ethical argument when they decline to prescribe birth control.
This is partly because doctors fear being targeted by government investigations, or attracting protests from abortion opponents, a Warsaw gynaecologist told the publication Newsweek Polska.
Kacpura explained that these hurdles lead many Polish women to seek abortions in other countries, like neighbouring Germany.
“There the women feel better cared for,” said Kacpura, referring to the Bundesrepublik.
While abortions may be performed legally in Germany, the procedure is actually technically defined as “illegal” under the criminal code, and the circumstances under which it can be performed are labelled as “exceptions”.
In order to get an abortion, the following conditions must generally be met: the woman must request the abortion, undergo counselling at least three days before the operation, a physician must perform it, and it must occur within the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy.
A woman found to be under “exceptional distress” may also be able to have an abortion up to 22 weeks into the pregnancy, if she also undergoes counselling.
Still, the wording of the German law concerning the required counselling has a pro-life ring to it: The counselling is meant to “protect unborn life”, and to “encourage the woman to continue the pregnancy and to open her to the prospects of a life with the child”, the law states.
Rudzinski has worked in Germany since the 1980s, and says his clinic consults between 20 to 25 Polish women per week. Many of the women scrape together the last of their money to pay for the roughly €400 procedure.
Women in Poland also often exchange advice and price comparisons on online forums. Women’s rights activists warn that since not all can afford an abortion, poor women and those in rural areas in particular may risk their lives by attempting abortions using household items.
One woman in eastern Poland “inserted a wire into her vagina to reach the uterus,” explained Rudzinski.
“She developed a 40C fever and severe stomach pain. I advised her to immediately go to the hospital,” he continued. “She never reported back to me. I don’t know if she’s still alive.”
Even after the protests last year stopped the Polish government from increasing restrictions for abortions, the fight for women’s reproductive rights continues: The conservative Christian Law and Justice party (PiS) is pushing to make the so-called “morning after pill” prescription only.
Despite medical experts explaining that the pill only prevents pregnancies from occurring, rather than terminating pregnancies, right-wing politicians still insist that it is a form of abortion.
Even the Polish health minister, Konstanty Radziwill, who is himself a doctor, said in an interview that he would not ever prescribe the morning after pill to a woman who had been raped.
Rudzinski condemned this way of thinking.
“That is like the Middle Ages,” he said.