Photos from the London Protest Against Poland's Restrictive Abortion Laws

In Poland, terminations are about to be made illegal in almost all circumstances. We met the protestors taking a stand in London this weekend.

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26 September 2016, 10:00am

Photos by Jake Lewis

It's 4pm on an overcast Saturday afternoon, and I'm standing with about 200 protesters outside the Polish embassy in London. Most are dressed in black, symbolising a 'Black Protest' of mourning at the recent rollback on women's reproductive rights in Poland. The day before, the so-called 'No Abortion Law' passed a key vote in the Polish parliament. If it is enacted, it will reverse the country's already restrictive abortion laws, making terminations illegal in almost all circumstances.

"We're mourning at the moment now in Poland," activist Paulina 'Poli' Palian tells me. "This law is not only about abortion. The government and church want to take away the little sex education we have in schools. Morning after pill is going to be gone. It was already hell to get it. Now it will be abolished. No abortion for rape victims. No prenatal care. Women looking for abortions and those helping them could go to jail. This applies to women who have abortions outside Poland, too."

Looking around the crowd I recognise faces from the day's earlier protest at the Irish embassy across town, organised by Repeal London. There, 77 women carried suitcases in silence to the embassy's front steps, a powerful visual representation of the number of women forced to travel from Ireland every week to seek terminations in the UK because of laws which are even more restrictive than Poland's.

Both protests are organised under the umbrella of the Global Repeal movement, coordinated by activist organisation Scarlet Brigade. These, and other protests around the world, are taking place in solidarity with the largest ever March for Choice in Dublin.

Like their Irish counterparts, thousands of Polish women each year are forced to travel in secrecy to access abortion clinics in other countries, a phenomenon known as 'abortion tourism'. If the 'No Abortion Law' is enacted, campaigners insist more women than ever will be forced to travel with procedures becoming more costly and dangerous.

When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, open borders meant women with the means to travel for terminations could do so much more easily. They began attending clinics in Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and elsewhere, with some going as far as the UK. Poland's Federation for Women and Family Planning estimate that of the 150,000 illegal abortions in Poland each year. 10 percent to 15 percent take place abroad.

Activist Magda Oljejor was 19 when she travelled to the UK for an abortion. "I had just started university in Poland and found out I was pregnant. I had no idea what the laws were back then. I went to the doctor. He didn't even want to speak to me about it. I was very scared. I wanted advice but there was nothing but a cold 'we don't do that.'"

"Fortunately, my mum was already here so I knew I could come to her and she would help me. I was very ashamed of myself because that's how I was brought up, the good Catholic girl. I was ashamed of going to the doctor here and asking for help but actually what I found is there's no shame here. It's normal when you're very young and not ready, you do have that option and no one is going to shame you."

"Polish women fear their family because everybody is so deeply Catholic," Oljejor says. "Even though women have an unspoken understanding - at a deeper level, they do believe in rights - but there is so much fear of the community. It's basically your family. I don't think they're scared of politicians or anything. But being shunned by your family, that sucks."

However, travelling for abortion is not an option open to all women. One protester VICE spoke to, who did not want to be named, described her illegal abortion experience as "traumatic". "I couldn't tell anyone for fear the authorities would find out and prosecute me. Only my boyfriend knew. As abortion is so expensive, I had to borrow money from a friend but couldn't tell them why. I left Poland shortly afterwards because of the pressure."

The day before the protest I meet with one of its main organisers, Joanna Cielecka, in her central London home. As a writer, filmmaker and campaigner, Cielecka has heard the stories of many Polish women who have been forced to seek illegal abortions. In 2004, she produced a theatre show based on their experiences.

READ: Photos of Last-Minute Protests Against a Harsh New Abortion Law in Poland

"Polish women mostly go to Germany because it's a Western country," she says. "All the doctors on the border know there is a surge of Polish women coming and having abortions there because it's safe."

While abortion is illegal in Poland, apart from cases of rape or incest, danger to the mother's health or an unviable foetus, there are no shortage of providers. "Abortion is really easily available. In every paper at the back there are adverts for abortion. In every paper. It's a big business."

I ask if it is safe. "No, not at all. There are usually two kinds of procedures offered. First, the so-called chemical abortion. They just give you a pill or they insert a pill for stomach ulcers into the vagina to provoke a burning sensation. It often doesn't work and you are referred to the more expensive surgical abortion. You're given an anesthetic so you just wake up and it's done but you don't know how it's been done. It's not even a proper surgery, just a room in somebody's home."

In the 2015 abortion statistics for UK and Wales, 25 women give their home address as Poland. Experts suggest that the real number could be much higher, possibly in the thousands. Cielecka agrees: "Yes, definitely, absolutely. Especially now with so many Polish people being in Britain. It is very likely."

During our interview, Cielecka describes the inspiration she and other Polish campaigners have drawn from the Irish 'Repeal the 8th' campaign, which fights to overturn Ireland's abortion ban. "It's all about solidarity. What the Repeal the 8th movement has done worldwide is motivate groups of people. Thanks to social media we are no longer separate. It helped gather us together and be stronger."

The next day she brings the protest to a close with the words: "People who say, 'What have Polish women got to do with Irish women?' just don't get it. It doesn't matter which country it is, if a woman is denied her rights, we won't stop protesting, marching and fighting."

At a critical time for reproductive rights in Poland and Ireland, it sounds like the rallying cry women in both countries need.

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