Catholic bishops who they feared
could derail Poland’s upcoming entry into the
President Aleksander Kwasniewski
takes the cake. He favored expanding the 1993 law
beyond current exceptions for rape, incest, fetal
deformities, or the health of the mother. Now he says
the law isn’t that bad—especially when
Poland’s birth rate is so low. “Can you
believe it? He knows the abortion law has nothing
to do with this,” says Wanda Nowicka, head of
Federation of Women and Family Planning, which
celebrated its tenth anniversary in January.
Under communism, women had little
or no access to contraceptives (or tampons or anesthesia
during childbirth). Abortion was not just available;
it was broadly used as a means of birth control.
The Solidarity anti-communist movement
wrested power from the communists in 1989 but, while
its reformers freed up the economic and political
systems, they restricted options for women. They granted
payback demands from the Catholic Church (which had
provided sanctuary for Solidarity dissidents when
communists banned the movement in 1981) to curtail
access to both abortion and divorce, return nuns and
priests to public schools and then, in 1993, enact
the near-total ban on abortion with prison penalties
for doctors who helped women get illegal abortions.
With nearly 11 million women of childbearing
age, a thriving black-market abortion industry has
sprung up. Doctors charge an average of $500 for an
underground abortion-- more than a month's wages for
doctors at state hospitals. Ironically, the opportunity
for doctors to earn this significant salary supplement
appears to be one reason women eligible for legal
abortions get the runaround in state hospitals.
At the least, says Wanda Nowicka,
the government should "document the real effect
of the law," which is far more restrictive in
practice (only 124 legal abortions were reported in
2001) than the law requires, with women clearly eligible
for legal abortions ordered to take one unwarranted
test after another until time has run out. "If
the SLD had the political will to do anything, they
could demonstrate it with a stronger policy on contraception
and on sex education," says Nowicka.
The good news is that the media is
paying attention to these SLD-church collisions on
abortion issues, amplifying arguments by Nowicka,
parliamentary deputy Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, who heads
the government's office on women's rights, and feminist
author Agnieszka Graff. This includes their outcry
in January when the SLD caved in to church demands
and issued a written statement expressing its understanding
that "no EU treaties ... would hamper the Polish
government in regulating moral issues or those concerning
the protection of human life."
More young women are paying attention
as well, swelling the ranks of women's studies classes,
joining in protest letters to politicians, and showing
up at street demonstrations, including an annual "manifa"
that takes place every International Women's Day.
Last year's slogans included, "Yes for rights
to abortion, rights to contraception." This year's
Demonstration on March 8 will be closely watched by
both the bishops and SLD politicians to assess the
clout of the women’s rights groups.