What It's Like to Have an Illegal Abortion
It's a crime to have an abortion in Poland, so what do you do when an unwanted pregnancy could ruin your life?
This article originally appeared on VICE Poland.
In late September and early October of this year, thousands of men and women took to the streets of the biggest Polish cities to protest a proposed ban on abortion. Abortion is already illegal in Poland, but this amendment would have also banned the current exceptions to the rule—where women were allowed to have abortions after being raped, if the mother was at risk, or if the fetus was severely damaged, for example.
After these nationwide protests, the new proposal was shut down. But a week later, Jarosław Kaczyński—chairman of Polish ruling party Law and Order—vowed that his party "will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies when a child is sure to die, severely deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptized, buried, and have a name." This led to a new round of protests held on October 23 and 24.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Polish Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS), one in four Polish women have had an abortion. But the authors admit that the majority of the surveyed women had an abortion when it was still legal—before the introduction of the so-called Abortion Compromise in 1993.
Since abortion is illegal and the subject itself is such a taboo, it's impossible to get any clearer numbers than rough estimates about abortion in Poland. But what is it like when you're one of the people who actually makes up that number? I spoke to a woman who had an illegal abortion in a Polish clinic a few years ago. She agreed to tell me her story on the condition that we keep her identity anonymous.
VICE: What was your life like back then?
I studied and I worked in a shop where I made PLN 1,000 [about $250] a month. That wasn't enough to get by, but my mom paid my rent. I was living with my boyfriend at the time, who was a musician and often went on tour. It wasn't a healthy relationship. My boyfriend was French and didn't feel comfortable around my friends. He had no interest in trying to integrate or fit in. He was extremely jealous and hated it when I went out. Honestly, I have no idea why I stayed in that toxic relationship.
How did you find out you were pregnant?
I wasn't able to buy the pill, so I asked my boyfriend to use a condom instead. He had just come back from touring with his band and thought I wanted him to use a condom because I had cheated on him. I denied it, but he pressured me into having sex without a condom to prove I had been faithful. I was so depressed and emotionally numb that I just gave in.
After a few weeks, I took a pregnancy test, and it came out positive. He wasn't affected at all by the news, blamed me, and told me to take care of it.
At the time, I felt there was no safe way out of the situation—I was worried I might not find anyone willing to help me or lend me the money
You decided to go to a clinic. Why?
From Women on Web, I learned about the abortion pill, but I didn't know anyone who'd had any experience with that. I heard that if those pills are mailed to you they can be confiscated and that there could be complications. It didn't seem right for me at that moment. A year earlier, a friend of mine had been in a similar situation, and she had undergone a procedure in a clinic, so she gave me the contact details of the doctor who had treated her.
What was your appointment with that doctor like?
I had my first appointment in the middle of the day in a private clinic in the center of Warsaw. I was four weeks pregnant at the time. Given my wages, the procedure was incredibly expensive; it would cost me PLN 3,650 [about $920]—which was almost four times what I made in a month.
The clinic was clean and elegant; there were no coat hangers or dirty bandages. A nice female doctor examined me and had a routine chat with me about my pregnancy—which wasn't put on my medical records. At the end of the appointment, she asked me whether I wanted to "keep it as it is." I said I didn't. We scheduled the procedure for the following week in a different clinic.
How was the procedure?
I was treated by three doctors: an anesthesiologist, a surgeon-gynecologist, and the lady who had examined me during the first appointment. In the waiting room, I sat next to a visibly pregnant woman who was waiting for a check-up. In the doctor's office, I changed into a hospital gown, got the anesthesia, and I blacked out. Maybe two hours later, I woke up, and when I felt better, I took the bus home. On the bus, I started to bleed—when I came home, my skirt was covered in blood.
Did they warn you that could happen?
No—the doctor had given me her number and told me I could call her in case there were any complications. I was bleeding profusely, and it didn't stop overnight, so I finally called the doctor and had a free follow-up appointment. She gave me some kind of injection, but the bleeding only stopped after three days.
How did the people around you feel about your abortion?
When I came home after the procedure, my boyfriend didn't even turn from his computer—so I absolutely knew I had done the right thing. He left about a month later. He didn't support me financially in any way—I had borrowed the money for the abortion from a friend and had to pay her back over the subsequent months.
The only thing my mom said after I had told her everything was, "Why did you do this to me?" She is religious, but she might have also been worried she would have to pay for it. We never talked about it again. My friends were all very supportive, though.
Do you think the fact that abortion is illegal in Poland dictates people's opinions on it? Do you think your mom would have reacted differently if it had been legal, for example?
Criminalization of abortion definitely has a negative impact on how people who aren't religious fanatics view it, yes. The fact that it's a crime is a barrier for many people.
How are you doing now? Did your abortion have any long-lasting emotional effect on you?
The procedure itself didn't mark me in any way—except for the debt it left me in, which was a serious burden for a while. The way my boyfriend and my mother treated me after it happened definitely left more of a mark on me. At the time, I felt there was no safe way out of the situation—I was worried I might not find anyone willing to help me or lend me the money. That was rough, emotionally. And procedures like these wouldn't even have to happen as often if morning after pills were available without prescription here.