A nationwide protest movement has forced Poland’s conservative government to back off from enacting a controversial court ruling that would introduce a near total ban on abortion.
But Polish reproductive rights organisations say the judgment is already having a chilling effect regardless, resulting in hospitals attempting to cancel scheduled terminations, and a growing number of women heading to other countries for abortions.
Polish abortion activist Kinga Jelinska, founder of the group Abortion Dream Team, told VICE World News that five women had contacted an abortion advice hotline she was affiliated with because hospitals had cancelled their terminations following the 22nd of October ruling, “as simple as that.”
“We can say it’s definitely had a chilling effect,” she said.
Kamila Ferenc, lawyer for Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, said her organisation had received about 70 requests for assistance from women since the court ruling, including from women whose abortion providers had cancelled scheduled terminations.
“Some hospitals stopped performing legal abortions after the ruling, because they were afraid it is illegal,” she said.
“We approached the hospital directors … giving our legal opinion, and the abortions were performed eventually. But the system shouldn’t work like that.”
Last month’s ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, that abortion in the case of severe foetal defects was unconstitutional, removed the most common of the few existing grounds for legal termination in the predominantly Catholic country, whose abortion laws are among the most restrictive in Europe.
Rulings from the court take legal effect once the government publishes them in the Journal of Laws, typically a formality that occurs in the days immediately following a judgment.
But this ruling – which would make abortion only legal in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother’s health was at risk – sparked widespread outrage, drawing hundreds of thousands of Poles into the streets for sustained protests over the assault on women’s rights.
Nearly a month on, Polish officials have not published the ruling, creating confusion both for patients and abortion providers over the legality of foetal defect abortions, which accounted for about 98 percent of legal abortions in Poland last year.
“It’s a very unclear situation because of the non-publication of the law,” said Jelinska, “There are multiple levels of legal confusion.”
Jelinska said a growing number of women were seeking to have abortions abroad due to their questions over the legality of the procedure following the ruling.
Abortion Without Borders, an abortion support network she is affiliated with, has helped 44 Polish women travel abroad to cities like Berlin, Amsterdam or London for terminations since the ruling, a rate of almost two a day. Previously, there was one such case roughly every day and a half.
She said the hotline had been deluged with calls as a consequence of the ruling and the nationwide protests it had inspired, which had dramatically lifted public awareness of the service. It has been getting between 200 to 300 calls a day since the judgment, compared to about 300 a month beforehand.
“You wouldn’t see any protest across Poland without someone having prepared a poster with the hotline’s number. It’s sprayed on walls, shared on social media, chanted at demonstrations,” she said.
“As a side effect lots of people got to know how to get a safe abortion in Poland, even though it’s not formally supported by the health system.”
Poland’s restrictive abortion laws mean that only about 1,000 legal abortions were carried out last year, nearly all of them due to severe foetal defects. According to the Federation for Women and Family Planning, the country has one of the biggest underground abortion networks in Europe, with an estimated 120,000-150,000 illegal terminations each year, either through self-administered pills or surgical procedures. Many women also travel to European countries for abortions.
For Ferenc, from Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, the current legal situation is clear, although she said some hospitals still needed convincing of that.
“The ruling hasn’t been published, which means it hasn’t come into force,” she said. “The legal situation around abortion in Poland hasn’t changed, and until the ruling is published, legal abortions should be performed.”
She said that could change at any time, if the government decided to enact the ruling, but she was optimistic that the fierce opposition to the ban would persuade the government to back off for good.
“They’re not sure about what to do,” she said. “They have protests in the street and know about society’s anger. For now, they have taken a step back.”