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Lessons from Poland, the other developed country curtailing abortion rights

People protest in Warsaw in January 2021 after Poland's Constitutional Tribunal confirmed its ruling further tightening the mainly Catholic nation's strict antiabortion law. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Last month, when Americans were stunned to learn of a draft Supreme Court opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade, one group of people was less surprised: Polish abortion rights advocates.

“What happened with the Supreme Court is of course shocking but not a surprise to us,” said Kinga Jelinska, a member of the Polish abortion rights group Abortion Dream Team. She sees “a lot of parallels between what is happening in the U.S.” and in Poland.

Only two developed countries have rolled back abortion rights in the 21st century: the United States and Poland. As Americans grapple with the potential end of the constitutional right to abortion, the story of Poland’s 90-year fight over abortion shows what the end of that right might look like.

The history of abortion in Poland has been a topsy-turvy affair. Before 1932, abortion was banned without any exception. In that year, the young republic’s Constitutional Tribunal legalized abortion when there were manifest medical reasons for performing one, such as when the health of the mother was at stake. Abortion was also permitted when a pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

This relatively liberal law remained in force from 1932 to 1956 — through the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, the defeat of Nazi forces by the Soviet Union and the reoccupation of Poland under Joseph Stalin.

The only exception was from 1943 to 1945, during the last two years of the apocalyptic German occupation, which saw millions of Polish civilians killed, including most of the country’s large prewar Jewish population. In that horrid interregnum, abortion on request was authorized by direct order of Adolf Hitler, who despised the Polish “untermenschen” — or those considered racially or socially inferior — and wanted Poles to have fewer children.

Abortion was also forced on pregnant Jewish prisoners at the concentration camps at Ravensbrück and Waltrop-Holthausen. The Nazis had no ethical problems with abortion — as long as it was being performed on what they considered the right people. (The Polish antiabortion movement has capitalized on this history with posters that juxtapose Hitler’s face with an image of an aborted fetus.)

In 1956, during the “Khrushchev thaw” under Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, the law was further liberalized when the Polish legislature followed Moscow’s example and repealed its ban on abortion, allowing it in cases where the woman was experiencing “difficult living conditions.”

Not that the Polish Communist government encouraged abortion. On the contrary: The authorities hoped to bolster the country’s reproductive capacity and thought illegal underground abortions hurt women’s procreative health more than legal medicalized abortions.

However, in practice, abortion in Poland was available on request.

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In the 1950s and 1960s, it was not uncommon for women from European countries where abortion was restricted, including more “liberal” Sweden across the Baltic Sea, to travel to Poland to have abortions because they were more accessible and affordable there.

Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and so did the Polish Communist regime. As political and intellectual freedom expanded, reproductive rights reverted to the prewar “norm,” and abortion was effectively pushed underground — or abroad, for those who could afford it — due to the powerful influence of the Catholic Church. (More than 85 percent of Poles identify as Catholic, the highest percentage in any European country.)

Since then, abortion access has continued to diminish, though the trend has also given rise to a vociferous abortion and women’s rights movement, including Abortion Dream Team.

That movement secured a major victory in 2016, during the “Black Protest,” when thousands of Polish women bearing black umbrellas and other black accoutrements demonstrated against and stopped legislation proposed by Catholic groups that would have imposed a total ban on abortion.

The Black Protest sparked demonstrations in other countries with restrictive abortion regulations, including heavily Catholic Ireland. There, a nationwide referendum overturned a similar ban in 2018.

However, in Poland, the Black Protest proved a rearguard action in the losing fight for abortion rights, which culminated in a ruling last year by the Constitutional Tribunal that made abortion, or abetting an abortion, a criminal act, with exceptions only for rape, incest and to protect the mother’s life.

That ruling resembles the leaked draft opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. that would overturn Roe, said Jelinksa. “If you look at the leak, the tone and the language is very similar,” she said.

The Tribunal’s exception to protect mothers’ lives hasn’t always been observed. Last September, a Polish woman known as Izabela died after being denied medical intervention when her water broke in the 22nd week, or fifth month, of pregnancy. In January, a woman known as Agnieszka T. who was in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy died after the heartbeat of one fetus stopped and Polish physicians, wary of breaking the law, refused to carry out an abortion.

“Many people in both countries perceive judicial institutions to be politicized,” said Courtney Blackington, an American Fulbright scholar affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences and the University of Warsaw who has been studying the abortion crisis in Poland. “When the new [Polish] abortion ruling came out last year, there were activists who told me that they could not respect it because they felt it emanated from an institution that no longer respected the law.”

Polish abortion opponents, she added, “are hyperaware of what is happening in the U.S.” and have used their American counterparts as a model for their movement.

“The antiabortion coalition in the U.S. is basically the same as the antiabortion coalition in Poland,” said Agnieszka Graff-Osser, a Polish feminist author and activist who works at the American Studies Center of the University of Warsaw. She added, “It is the same movement, the same strategy.”

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Nevertheless, Polish abortion rights activists say American women shouldn’t despair that the United States will follow Poland into a complete ban on abortion. For one thing, a ruling to overturn Roe wouldn’t outlaw abortion, and many states would continue to allow it. For another, the relatively recent availability of abortion pills can still give people a way to access abortions if doctors stop providing them.

“The pills are a real game changer,” said Jelinska, of Abortion Dream Team. But they aren’t without substantial risks. Justyna Wydrzynksa, an Abortion Dream Team activist, is on trial for giving the pill to a woman experiencing domestic violence. Jelinska called her case “a powerful reminder of the risks to activists from unjust, outdated laws.”

Still, “the Polish example shows that medical abortion with pills and feminist support networks can help [women] survive such difficult times,” said Natalie Broniarczyk, another Abortion Dream Team member. “This is what authorities are most afraid of,” she added.

The Abortion Dream Team members said the principal lesson that American women should take from Poland’s rollback of abortion rights is not to sink into despair, but to continue to support one another in finding ways to obtain safe abortions. The Polish activists may have lost one type of abortion access after another over the past few decades, but they have not lost hope.

Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian based in Riga, Latvia, and a visiting lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Culture. Eleonora Balode in Riga and Zuzanna Wieniewska in Warsaw provided research assistance for this article.