‘Her story is my story’: How a harsh abortion ban has reignited feminism in Poland

The long-submerged struggle over abortion has abruptly resurfaced in ­Poland after more than a generation, as the failure of a right-wing initiative to impose an outright ban has revitalized the country’s feminist movement.

The most hopeful now have their sights on overturning the legal restrictions on abortion that date back 23 years, and bringing women’s issues in from the margins of Polish society.

Warsaw is – for the first time in a generation – a small hotbed of abortion rights activism.

“The feminist and women’s movement even half a year ago was quite small, and because of the protests, it has expanded,” said Barbara Nowacka, an opposition politician and activist who held a public discussion in a downtown Warsaw cafe on a recent evening.

Across town, activists were protesting at Parliament. “You could say that we’re in the same place we were a year ago. The abortion law has not changed. But we’ve managed to build big support for women’s issues, not only for abortion but for dignity, the fight against domestic violence and others,” Nowacka said.

Some women are going public, sharing their stories. The most famous is Natalia Przybysz, a Polish RB singer who released a downbeat protest anthem, “Through a Dream,” a self-inspired ballad about traveling to Slovakia for an abortion. “Nobody speaks,” she told Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal Polish daily, last month. “And this solitude is terrible. I felt like I was the only woman in Poland who ever did it.” The tabloids went on the attack.

But her openness was not in vain. Izabela Maksymowicz, 35, a mother of two and a feminist, heard her and could relate. Maksymowicz was a fellow demonstrator in last month’s “Black Protest” movement, in which 30,000 women descended on the capital’s Castle Square in a swell of black umbrellas. Some women carried wire clothes hangers that day.

“Her story is my story,” Mak­symowicz said in an interview in her apartment in a bedroom community of the Polish capital, as her son slept on a couch nearby. “She has two kids. I have two kids.”

She was not ready for a third. When Maksymowicz chose to have an abortion last year, she decided to travel abroad to a clinic in Berlin rather than go “underground.”

“I didn’t want this kind of stigma, of doing something illegal,” she said. The protests and Przybysz’s story inspired her to write a post on Facebook telling friends what had happened, which she called a “coming-out.” She allowed The Washington Post to use her name, knowing that other women who have spoken openly about abortion have been criticized.

“We are human,” she said. “We can’t take any more on our shoulders. There is already so much. To me, this is the language we can use, and we should use, to talk about these very hard issues. Because when we use words like abortion, liberalization, then they imagine things. Not people.”

Tens of thousands of women face a similar choice each year in Poland, where abortions are banned except in extreme cases: danger to the mother’s life, severe birth defects or pregnancy as a result of rape or incest. They choose to go abroad to find gynecologists who are sympathetic or willing to break the law for money; to order pills on the Internet; or, in extreme cases, to resort to homemade methods.

Their stories are usually shared in whispers, if at all; as speculation increases over whether the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn the landmark case Roe v. Wade, Poland delivers a poignant counterfactual. Abortion was legal here until communism fell, but a resurgent Catholic Church in 1993 struck a deal with the government. Poles tend to call it “the compromise,” although activists say it is anything but. Just 1,040 legal terminations were carried out in Poland last year. In many cases, activists say, doctors will not perform abortions even when they are permitted to do so under the law.

The street protests last month helped defeat a right-wing legislative initiative to ban abortion outright. But the issue has not been resolved. The activists interviewed for this article repeated one characterization of Polish society: “divided.” The culture wars are a blood sport.

“I’ve probably been insulted more in the past month than in my entire life,” said Zofia Marcinek, who began attending feminist demonstrations at age 14 and helped organize last month’s protests. “People perceive feminism very negatively in Poland. It’s all those jokes about feminist women hating men and burning bras. It is seen as something violent.”

Concerned that protesters will begin to tire of public demonstrations, she is focusing on educational initiatives and helping to organize the dozens of scattered new nongovernmental organizations dedicated to women’s issues.

If the protests halted the total ban on abortions, legalizing most abortions, a process commonly called “liberalization,” also seems unlikely. A poll by Newsweek Polska reported that 74 percent of Poles support maintaining the current legislation.

One woman, a government employee, who attended No­wacka’s discussion said that she had protested the total ban on abortions and wanted to see better sex education. But “if a bunch of feminists go out and say they want to get rid of the
law entirely, then I would be against.”

The retort is usually that the status quo does not work.

Every week, several women from the provinces come to Warsaw looking for Romuald Debski, the head of gynecology and obstetrics at Bielanski Hospital. Of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions that are carried out each year in Poland, many are linked to Down syndrome. Close to a third of them are performed at Debski’s hospital.

Antiabortion demonstrators have picketed him there, carrying banners showing his image next to aborted fetuses.

“I have been called a murderer, and there have been protesters outside my hospital,” he said. “So far, I haven’t been put to jail for my actions, but we have seen cases of doctors being put to jail for saying what they really think.”

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful leader of Poland’s majority, and highly conservative, Law and Justice party, said he opposed the total abortion ban last month after the protests. But he has signaled support for new laws.

“Even when the pregnancy is very difficult, when the child is doomed to die or seriously malformed,” he told a Polish news agency in an interview, it is important “that there is a delivery, so that the child can be christened and buried, so that it has a name.”

Since then, the government has authorized cash payments to mothers to carry disabled fetuses to term.

The abortion restrictions are older than many of the protesters.

“I was a small child when abortion was banned,” said Martyna Edyta, a 23-year-old from a small, conservative town in southern Poland who now heads an abortion rights NGO called Medical Students for Choice. Two of her childhood friends have had abortions: one in Slovakia, the other in the Czech Republic.

“I was born into the status quo,” Edyta said. “This is the first moment when people are discussing abortion or reproductive rights in my lifetime.”

An older generation of activists, still here, remembers protesting in 1992 to keep abortion rights. They collected more than 1 million signatures and still lost.

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