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In Conservative Poland, People Pushed Back In Battle Over Abortion Rights

Nov 25, 2016
Originally published on November 28, 2016 8:22 am
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Poland has recently gone through a battle over abortion rights. The country's right-wing government tried to pass laws for a near-total ban on abortions. The effort ran into heavy opposition and failed. NPR's Joanna Kakissis went to Warsaw to look at how people in this conservative society pushed back this fall.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: This fall, a group called Stop Abortion testified before the Polish parliament.

JOANNA BANASIUK: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Every child deserves to be born, said the group's spokeswoman Joanna Banasiuk, even children with severe birth defects and those conceived through rape or incest. Currently in these three circumstances, Polish women are allowed to terminate their pregnancies. The new proposal would have only preserved a fourth exception - to save the life or health of the mother.

The health ministry says there are only about a thousand legal abortions each year, though activists estimate there are up to 100,000 illegal abortions. Polish women sometimes travel to neighboring Germany to terminate pregnancies. But they're too ashamed to talk about it, says Agnieszka Legucka. She's an academic and a mom of two who talked to us in a Warsaw cafe.

AGNIESZKA LEGUCKA: It's completely difference between even 20, 30 years ago in Poland. It was quite normal thing to have an abortion.

KAKISSIS: That was during communist rule, when abortion was permitted.

LEGUCKA: Today, you cannot say aloud that you had an abortion. It's...

KAKISSIS: What would people say to you if you did?

LEGUCKA: That you are not a woman. You are evil.

KAKISSIS: About 90 percent of Poles are Catholic. And the church gave them an identity outside communism. Adam Szostkiewicz, a religion columnist at the country's largest newsweekly, says the church's power grew after Poland became a democracy.

ADAM SZOSTKIEWICZ: And, of course, the bishops were smart enough to use this for their own interests.

KAKISSIS: They pushed for the current restrictions. When the idea of a total abortion ban came up earlier this year, some bishops backed it. So did members of the ruling Law and Justice Party, including the country's female prime minister, Beata Syzdlo. Lawmakers said women who violated the ban and any doctors who helped them could face up to five years in jail. For Agnieszka Legucka, that went way too far.

LEGUCKA: Where is the line between church influence and your live - way of life? So you think that's - what it's going on here? It's not my country anymore.

KAKISSIS: So last month, she joined more than 100,000 women marching through Polish cities. Zofia Marcinek, a 22-year-old university student, said critics called them feminazis and...

ZOFIA MARCINEK: Prostitutes, whores, witches, crazy women. You know, it's a very common actually way of dismissing someone's views.

KAKISSIS: But parliament listened to the protesters. After the marches, most lawmakers voted against the proposed ban and it failed. The church's influence remains strong. I meet 31-year-old environmental engineer Katarzyna Jaszczyszyn during Sunday mass at a newly-opened Catholic shrine. She says being Catholic means being absolute about carrying every fetus to term.

KATARZYNA JASZCZYSZYN: Because even if it will live only a few hours, even in those few hours it can give us so much love.

KAKISSIS: Under a new law, the government will pay women nearly a thousand dollars if they go ahead and have a baby with serious birth defects. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Warsaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.