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WARSAW – When Poland brought in its near-total ban on abortion, Kaja decided she would rather not have a child at all than do so in a place with such little respect for women’s choices and bodies. “I didn’t want to be part of the government’s agenda, this fully patriarchal perspective on women, that they should breed children,” the 30-year-old said in an interview at a Warsaw cafe. “The prevalent view on womanhood in Poland is this subordinate, motherly figure who never has anything to say, just accepts everything. It’s extremely sexist. I didn’t want to be a statistic that would somehow be used to promote this point of view.”
Kaja, a graphic designer who asked that her surname not be used because of the political and social sensitivity of the story, is far from alone. Last year – two years after Catholic-majority Poland banned abortion even in the case of foetal abnormalities, sparking massive street protests – the country recorded its lowest number of births since the Second World War. Recent data from the state research agency CBOS showed that less than a third of women aged 18-45 were planning on having children. Around two thirds of 500 women surveyed said the new abortion rules were making people less likely to want to get pregnant, according to a poll by United Surveys for the Polish media Dziennik Gazeta Prawna and RMF24. If the country’s right-wing leadership had hoped that the change in the law would herald a return to large Polish families and “traditional” values, it has spectacularly backfired. Today, abortion is only officially allowed if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if it puts the mother’s life at risk.
However, even in these cases women may struggle to access abortion, as doctors fear falling foul of the law: in recent years there have been several high-profile stories of women dying as a result of complications arising from pregnancies, or being denied the procedure even after being raped.Activists who help women access abortions have also been targeted. International rights groups last month condemned the “chilling” conviction of Justyna Wydrzynska, who was sentenced to community service after supplying a pregnant woman with abortion pills. “Because of the politics and especially the abortion ban - and also that you cannot access health care that will treat you with dignity or anything like that - people are in general really hesitant towards the idea,” Kaja said. “I think it’s getting quite popular to have this attitude in my generation that you don’t want any children whatsoever.”Lack of abortion access is not the only factor behind the declining birthrate, which is a long-term trend. Birthrates have long been declining across the West, but in Poland the drop is particularly steep, and now stands below the EU average.Many women cite concerns about money, housing and the future as reasons for wanting not to have children, or delay getting pregnant. Last month, inflation in the country went above 18 percent, a 25-year high.
If not wanting to conform to the government’s agenda was Kaja’s primary concern when the abortion ban was introduced, today she and her partner are most put off having children by the prohibitive costs of childcare and the lack of support.“Being able to become a parent in a way that is not a burden but might be a great experience – that’s a privilege these days,” she said. “There’s a government programme where they pay you 500 zloty [$116, £94 per month, per child], but I’m not sure it’s substantial. Being a mother has become a luxurious commodity.”Agnieszka Szpilka, a writer and mother of disabled twins, can well understand why people would be reluctant to have children in today’s Poland. If children are born with disabilities, parents will have minimal support from the state: a flat payment of around 2,000 zloty [$500, £375] per month, which they only receive if they give up any income from work and dedicate themselves entirely to their family. The government does not provide carers or support facilities, beyond specialist schools.“They will pay us this money to just go away,” explained the 46-year-old, whose autistic teenage children require round-the-clock care and communicate through a touch-pad screen. “They say, ‘mothers, stay at home, we don’t want to see you.’”Szpilka said she had taken out “loans and loans and loans” to pay for childcare outside term time, allowing her to write. Her book Hexy, an eco-feminist text which has already won plaudits from the likes of Polish Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk, has sold to an imprint of Penguin Random House for a planned English translation and US release.
Aside from her writing, Szpilka has found herself in the role of campaigner for the rights of people with disabilities and their families. She is deeply conflicted about working with the current government, led by the Law and Order Party (PiS), but wants to ensure families are provided with more practical help and support, not just an increase in a handout that forces primary carers out of the job market. “I never wanted to be an activist,” she said. “I want to live my life. Be a mother, write my books, eat good food and dance.” Despite the difficulties, Szpilka believes this is a moment of change for women in Poland, making a major shift from the attitudes of her mother’s generation. The crackdown on reproductive rights has prompted women to come together “like mycelium under the ground,” she said, forming networks to share information and organise protests. “This is the most transformative moment in Polish history since 1989,” she said, in reference to the collapse of the Communist system. “Women have never been stronger than they are now. When [PiS] started ruling years ago, they didn’t see that patriarchy in Poland was about to finish. We’re saying goodbye to patriarchy.”Abortion Dream Team, a group of three women, including the convicted Justyna Wydrzynska, agree that the crackdown has ironically brought the topic into the mainstream.
The ban has helped people organise, and made potential parents more aware of unofficial ways to access the procedure, the group said during an interview at their unmarked office in central Warsaw.
“When there were protests, we observed triple the traffic to our channels,” said Natalia Broniarczyk, a former teacher who now forms part of the trio. The Abortion Dream Team (ADT) provides women with abortion pills and, in the case of second trimester abortions, helps them travel abroad. The three are regularly called in for questioning by police.They said they help the same number of women access abortions every day as the state does in a whole year. In 2021, the last year for which figures are available, just 107 abortions were performed by Polish doctors.“We expect this number [of ADT-aided abortions] to grow in 2023,” Broniarczyk added, citing the “Justyna effect” and increased interest around the time of her trial.Even with the support of NGOs such as theirs, Broniarczyk “totally gets” why women would be afraid of getting pregnant in Poland since the law change. Like Kaja, she said the prohibitive costs of raising a child were also a major factor.The group suggested that while 70 percent of Poles support the idea of abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, it would take five to ten years for legislation to catch up, even if the PiS is ousted from power in an unpredictable election this year. “It can be a crazy country,” Broniarczyk said, pointing to the significant political influence of the Catholic Church, even as church attendance numbers decline.
The late Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland, still casts an outsized shadow over the political scene and partly influenced the strict abortion laws today. After the church helped overthrow the Communist authorities, it came back for a ‘quid pro quo’ with the country’s new leadership. “There have been many big trade-offs with the Catholic Church,” said Kinga Jelinska, the third member of ADT. “And part of that trade off is women’s bodies, as always.”Jelinska said that the declining birthrate was in itself no bad thing, and reflected women’s growing autonomy. She said the group would continue to offer access to abortion whatever lawmakers decided after the next election, in which the issue may play a central role. Donald Tusk, leader of the largest opposition party, former prime minister and former president of the European Council, declared last month that women’s rights were the “number one issue” in Poland. Other opposition MPs have mooted the idea of a referendum to change the abortion law, an idea that Jelinska dismisses. “The only referendum you can have around abortion is in your own bathroom when you see a positive pregnancy test. It has 100 per cent turnout and all decisions are right.”