It has been just over two years since the imposition of a near-total ban on abortion across Poland. The ban removed almost all conditions in which a woman can access abortion care, leaving millions of women in the dark when it comes to deciding what happens to their bodies.
For some women, continuing to carry their pregnancies is the most dangerous thing they can do. Even though Poland’s rigid laws state that abortion can be performed to save women’s health or life, many doctors refuse to give them to women who desperately need them.
Reports say at least six women in Poland have been left to die by medical staff after being denied access to life-saving abortion care. Heartbroken and helpless families are torn apart as they lose beloved mothers, partners, sisters, daughters and friends—women who probably would have been alive today if they had just received the care they so desperately needed.
Like 37-year-old Agnieszka, who died after doctors forced her to carry a dead fetus for seven days for fear of harming its twin. Both fetuses were removed two days later. Still, it was too late for Agnieszka, who developed a life-threatening infection and lost her life. Agnieszka’s husband and children must now face life without her—a soul-destroying life sentence with the knowledge she could have been saved.
But when you scratch the surface, there are many more stories of women who have barely made it out of the hospital alive. And with the level of violence against pregnant women in hospitals on the rise, women’s rights defenders fear for women who have no choice but to deal with a healthcare system and government that doesn’t value their lives.
For others across Poland, pregnancy is an awful experience in other ways. With abortion disallowed even in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, women are forced to carry their pregnancies to term and go through long labors—a cruel denial of dignity that nobody should face.
For Ukrainian refugees fleeing the devastation of invasion, women who require urgent abortion care after experiencing serious sexual assault face the shock of Poland’s harsh and draconian abortion legislation. They must either return to Ukraine and the treacherous conditions they have just fled, navigate confusing systems to seek care or proceed with their pregnancies, where the severe emotional distress of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term is compounded by the fear that any problems they may face could result in death.
Sadly, it is not just medical problems that makes denying access to abortion so deadly. Domestic violence advocates have long known that pregnancy is a dangerous and terrifying time for victims of abuse, and access to abortion care is critical to protecting these women. But in Poland, attempts on a woman’s health or life mean little to authorities, with the country on the verge of dropping the Istanbul convention—a human rights treaty against domestic violence and violence against women. Domestic violence charities also face police raids, state prosecutors refuse to sign documents necessary to receive abortion care in cases of rape, and the government cracks down on anyone who attempts to help women escape desperate and dangerous situations.
9 January 2023
Women across the U.S. now face the same plight as Polish women, with a staggering 20.9 million—one in three women between the ages of 15 and 44—having lost abortion access since the overturn of Roe.
Justyna Wydrzyńsk, a member of the Abortion Without Borders and the Abortion Dream Team, faces up to three years in prison for facilitating an abortion for a victim of domestic violence that didn’t happen, after the victim’s abuser found the tablets and reported both her and the victim to Polish police. Wydrzyńsk’s case marks the first in Europe where a women’s rights defender is being prosecuted for helping ensure care by providing abortion pills. Little is known about the fate of the woman who desperately sought her help.
Following the hell of the last two years and the violence, terror and attacks inflicted by the state on ordinary Polish women and their families, the majority of people across Poland now support access to abortion care. Seventy percent of Polish people are keen to liberalize abortion laws, a number that has steadily increased over the last two years. In this country held to ransom by religious fanatics, people don’t want to see more women suffering.
And while the loss of freedoms in Poland may seem abstract for some, 2022 has brought new and terrifying attacks on women’s rights across the globe. Women across the U.S. now face the same plight as Polish women, with a staggering 20.9 million—one in three women between the ages of 15 and 44—having lost abortion access since the overturn of Roe. With American women not even through one pregnancy cycle, 2023 is sure to bring more horror as we learn in real-time what denying access to abortion care means for women.
Globally, a shocking 45 percent of abortions remain unsafe due to lack of access to abortion care, with women dying horrific deaths from complications, sepsis and blood loss, robbed of their lives and robbed of their futures.
As we reach the end of another year where women have unnecessarily lost their lives, in part thanks to an insidious opposition pushing personal gain, it remains clearer than ever that denying access to abortion care is a sinister form of gender-based violence which can amount to femicide. One which kills hundreds of thousands of women globally and one which must be stopped in its tracks.
For the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marta Lempart, it is more critical than ever that we stand up to support access to life-saving abortion care, especially those with the power to liberalize laws. There are millions of lives depending on it.
This piece was originally published in Ms Magazine.