The price of choice – the fight over abortion in Poland | photo essay

Shaun Walker, photographs and personal stories Kasia Strek
·8-min read

Poland, where the Catholic church remains hugely powerful, and rightwing social conservatives are in power, has some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in Europe, but one thing had seemed clear in recent years: attempts to tighten the rules even further were doomed to fail, due to public outrage.

In 2016, a huge grassroots movement led by women sprung up in cities across the country, when the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party flirted with the idea of backing draconian proposals put forward by rightwing groups seeking criminal liability for women looking to have abortions, and investigations into “suspicious” miscarriages.

The legislative plans were shelved after the huge traction gained by the so-called “black protests”. The government backed off the plans, and then again in 2018 from a version that removed criminal liability but would still ban all abortion.

But now, with mass protest difficult amid the pandemic, the constitution tribunal, which has been politicised by PiS, has moved ahead with tightening the law. The new provision bans abortion in cases where “prenatal tests or other medical indications indicate a high probability of severe and irreversible foetal impairment or an incurable life-threatening disease”.

This kind of abortion, which rightwing Catholics have dubbed “eugenic abortion”, has accounted for around 98% of the small number of legal abortions in Poland in recent years. The constitutional tribunal agreed with a submission from rightwing MPs claiming it violates the constitutional right to life.

A number of surveys have shown that only a radical minority in Polish society is in favour of further restrictions on abortions, even if attitudes on further liberalisation are more split.

  • The second pro-choice march organised during the International Day of Safe Abortion in the streets of Warsaw under the tight protection of the national police.

  • Anti-abortion activists protest and pray publicly in a response to the second pro-choice march in Warsaw.

  • Young activists protest in front of the Polish parliament in Warsaw against continuous restrictions on women and sexuality rights in the country, September 2019.

“There are more and more people who want it liberalised, and only a tiny percentage want it restricted further,” said Karolina Więckiewicz, a pro-choice activist who has been part of a project to fund Polish women who need to travel abroad to receive abortions.

This series of photographs by Kasia Strek reflect the past few years of debate, protest and activism over Poland’s restrictive abortion laws.

Pro-choice campaigners say that while the black protests mobilised hundreds of thousands of women, they also drove a narrative about “good” and “bad” abortion that was not necessarily helpful for de-stigmatising abortion and promoting liberalisation of the laws. They hope that, eventually, Poland will undertake a journey similar to other Catholic countries such as Spain and Ireland, where society has become more secular, and strict abortion laws have been gradually loosened over the years.

  • A workshop to raise awareness among a wide group of activists, medical practitioners and media about combating stigmatisation of abortion, October 2019.

Various aspects of stigmatisation were discussed, from social, through to legal, institutional, in the media and among individuals (such as from friends and family). International activists and lawyers were invited to give conferences, including Mara Clarke, the founder of Abortion Support Network from the UK.

Natalia, Justyna, Karolina and Kinga Jelinska organised exercises on what arguments are helpful within various social groups, and shared their own experiences related to their activism.

  • Natalia Broniarczyk, a pro-abortion activist from the group Abortion Dream Team, a gender studies PhD researcher and one of the organisers of the pro-choice march, sits in her apartment in Warsaw, September 2019.

Even though she considers herself an active feminist, the stigma around abortion caused her to become depressed and made her hide her own experience of abortion for several years. She got pregnant a few years ago when she was already working as a sex educator. She felt extremely ashamed of the trouble she got herself into, had not told even her closest colleagues, and like thousands of other Polish women, got abortion pills from the only Polish support line. The founder of this helpline is now her colleague, and for several years, they have been working together to de-stigmatise the subject of abortion and make safe pharmacological procedures more widely available for Polish women.

  • Patrycja Wonatowska (34) has been working as a sex educator for seven years.

Apart from volunteering with the Ponton Group of sexual educators, Patrycja also works as a psychologist in the Institut of Positive Sexuology in Warsaw. During weekly phone duty, she responds to about 10 to 12 anonymous calls on questions related to sexuality. She and her colleagues are the direct targets of the new proposition in the Polish law that intents among other things to punish by up to three years in prison all sexual educators teaching minors about sexuality and erotic life.

  • A press conference in Warsaw on the eve of a new legislative proposal to legalise abortion and allow wider access to contraceptives, January 2018.

The Federation of Women and Family Planning had only recently started talking openly about the need for the liberalisation of the abortion laws. Their members are often invited to international women and human rights gatherings and conferences.

  • Kaja, 33, comes from a religious Catholic family, Gdansk, February 2017.

For several years she has been treated for gynaecological problems. She underwent three operations on her right ovary and had three miscarriages. Her last pregnancy was endangered from the beginning. The medication prescribed by her gynaecologist to support the pregnancy showed serious side effects – Kaja fainted twice at work. Her doctor refused to see her and over the phone told her that if she decided to stop the treatment, it would lead to the death of her baby. Already heavily bleeding from miscarriage, she had to drive 300km to the nearest clinic in Germany.

  • Barbara Nowacka is a left-wing politician who has been involved in women’s movements for a long time, Warsaw, March 2017.

Barbara is leading the Save the Women coalition. In 2016, they proposed a bill to liberalise abortion law in Poland, and then took an important role in organising the black protests around the country. In January 2017, on behalf of her coalition, Barbara received the Simone-de-Beauvoir prize for women’s rights awarded annually in Paris.

  • Natalia Przybysz (36) is a well-known Polish singer. Here, during a small show in Bydgoszcz, she dedicates one of her songs to all those fighting for women’s rights around the world, March 2017.

Before going to get an abortion in a Slovak clinic, following her doctor’s advice she took 42 pills of Cytotec. The medication failed to work, and in consequence she suffered from severe anaemia and other medical problems for several months. In October 2016, she decided to testify about her abortion in an interview. After the publication, she received death threats, faced a court case for killing her child, and several of her concerts were canceled or required extra security measures.

  • Karolina – a lawyer specialising in reproductive rights, and Natalia – a researcher at the university of Warsaw and a feminist deeply involved in the battle for legal abortion in Poland – in Opole, February 2017.

Karolina and Natalia have been friends for several years. In a hotel room after a long day of travelling and meetings they discuss the situation in the country.

  • Justyna Wydrzynska, Natalia Broniarczyk and Karolina Wieckiewicz call themselves the ‘Abortion Dream Team’, Wroclaw, February 2017.

In a semi-clandestine meeting organised in Wroclaw, they speak about the ‘loopholes’ in the existing law and how to use them to gain access to a safe medical abortion. Since the meeting they have been called by the prosecution to testify about their activities. Despite multiple threats, women from the group still want to share their knowledge and talk about abortion without shame and without prejudice, as the social stigmatisation of abortion and the current law mean there is a lack of accessible information.

  • Iza, 23, was drugged and raped during a party in her village. She did not remember anything and a month and a half later found out she was pregnant.

Despite her mother’s persuasions, she was determined not to keep the child. She wanted a different life for herself. She did not make an appointment but just arrived at the clinic hoping to find a solution. Straight after the abortion procedure she went to pray in a nearby church in Prenzlau, Germany, March 2017.

  • Joanna, 27, is at the end of the 12th week of her pregnancy, which was difficult from the start, Prenzlau, Germany, March 2017.

During prenatal tests her child was diagnosed with Edwards’ syndrome, which is a chromosomal disease resulting, in most cases, in prenatal death. Despite the theoretical possibility of legal abortion in Poland, she was refused treatment in a clinic close to where she lives. Instead, Joanna went directly to a clinic abroad.