Beyond the Church's Reach Fleeing West from Poland's Restrictive Abortion Laws

An increasing number of Polish women are travelling to Germany for abortions. Even as Poland has modernized and become more European, its laws have failed to keep pace.

Having spent 40 years working as a gynecologist, Janusz R. was pretty sure he'd seen everything his job could throw at him. But recently, he was proven wrong.

A few weeks ago a pretty Polish woman came to see Dr. R. in the hospital in the German town of Prenzlau, not far from the Polish border. She was pregnant, but didn't want to keep the baby. So far so normal. But the man who accompanied her was much more nervous than the men the doctor was used to seeing.

It wasn't until after the abortion had been successfully carried out that the patient's boyfriend became more talkative. "I'm a Catholic priest," he confessed. He said his church was completely out of touch with the times, that Poland's abortion legislation didn't "reflect real life in Poland anymore." R., who had himself been born in neighboring Poland, had never heard such words from a man of the cloth.

He has, however, heard it repeatedly from his patients. More and more women from Poland come to hospitals in Berlin, Prenzlau, Schwedt and other German towns near the border to have an abortion. R. estimates that about 600 such women have turned up at his offices alone this past year. In 2009, it was 400.

Whereas childless German women are heading east because there are no limits on the number of eggs Polish doctors are permitted to fertilize, implant or freeze, Polish women are fleeing to Germany because the law in their country only permits abortions if the mother's health is at risk, if the fetus is severely deformed, in cases of incest, or following rape.

No Longer an Agrarian Hinterland

During communism, Poland's abortion legislation was just as liberal as that of the rest of the Eastern bloc. But after 1989, the Polish parliament enacted one of the most restrictive laws in all of Europe. Many Poles are convinced it's the government's way of thanking the Catholic Church. After all, the church sheltered anti-communist opposition activists from the authorities for decades.

When Poland became a democracy in 1990, the country's bishops wanted free, Catholic Poland to be a God-fearing country in which men and women only shared a bed if they were married and only had sex for the purpose of having babies. Poland, though, lies in the heart of Europe. Its economy is booming and it has long ceased to be the agrarian hinterland that it was just 30 years ago.

The result is that Poland's abortion law is therefore at odds with the everyday lives of Polish women. More and more of them go to college and want to have a career. Statistics indicate that they are waiting longer and longer before having children. And they want to decide themselves when the time is right to become a mother.

Gynecologist R. studied medicine in the Polish city of Gdansk, emigrated to Sweden, and later came to Germany. He has worked as a medical director in top clinics in Stockholm and in the Ruhr Valley. Although he is retired, he can't bring himself to hang up his white coat for good. "I love my job, and abortions are a necessary evil," he says.

The Polish border is only 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, and has in any case been open since Poland adopted the Schengen Agreement in 2007. An abortion can be had in Prenzlau for about €400. The operation is carried out at cost.

Polish women, though, don't only come to see Dr. R for abortions. Increasingly they want him to deliver their babies or perform regular checkups on their toddlers. Dr. R. offers the kind of gynecological support that still isn't taken for granted in Poland's towns and rural areas. In these areas, adolescent girls and women even have difficulties getting the contraceptive pill or other methods of birth control.

Part of a Shady World

"Polish women are much more self-assured than they used to be," says R. "They bond with men they find sexually attractive, but do not want to marry." R. has learned that Polish women want the same freedoms as their male compatriots.

Women's rights activists estimate that as many as 200,000 illegal abortions are carried out in Poland every year. After-hours' terminations at Polish hospitals, in doctors' offices or even in private apartments cost about 8,000 zloty, or about €2,000. Gynecologists take out newspaper ads, though these don't mention their name, just a telephone number. "We offer a full range of services," runs the typical slogan. Illegal abortions are part of a shady world that everyone knows about, but no one wants to discuss.

Often enough doctors conduct their abortions without either an anesthetist or an assistant in attendance. Sometimes the patients are even required to hold the instruments during the operation. "The doctors are worried they will be discovered, and the women feel ashamed," R. says. He would prefer them to bring their problems across the border to his hospital.

Dr. R. had four Polish women in his waiting room on one recent morning. He was able to convince one of them to reconsider. The second was due to return a short time later. The third, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, cowered in her bed, still looking a little pale. "All the girls in my class have sex," she said. "Afterwards they go to confession."

The fourth patient had come too late: She was already in the 19th week of her pregnancy. In Germany, abortions are only permitted until the 12th week. This patient will probably get back into her car and drive even further west. The Netherlands permit terminations until the 22nd week of gestation.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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