poland church protest
Protesters disrupt mass to object to abortion ban
01:57 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The Abortion Dream Team usually receives about 400 calls a month, from women seeking advice and information. Last week, the Polish advocacy group had 700 in the space of three days, according to team member Justyna Wydrzynska.

Some came from women who had just arrived at hospital to have abortions because of fetal defects – only to be told to go home after Poland’s highest court on October 22 imposed a near-total ban on abortion.

“They are furious and sad and they don’t know what to do,” Wydrzynska told CNN. “They cannot take pills because [their pregnancy is] above 20 weeks so it could be dangerous for them.” The likelihood of a woman taking abortion pills needing a further procedure is far greater after 14 weeks, according to the UK’s National Health Service.

A demonstrator in Warsaw holds flares as hundreds of thousands took to the streets this week to voice their opposition to the tightening of Poland's abortion law.

The women Wydrzynska and her team spoke to may be forced to travel abroad for the procedure, or left to carry a pregnancy to term even if they know the baby will not survive, since providers could be jailed, she said.

However, President Andrzej Duda submitted a draft amendment to the law on Friday, which would legalize abortion in situations where the baby has “lethal defects” and would die soon after birth.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters, some dressed as handmaids, took part in the country’s largest demonstrations in decades this week. Some were met by riot police with pepper spray and arrests on the streets, while others stormed churches, and scuffles broke out in parliament.

Friday's protest in Warsaw was the largest Poland has seen in decades as demonstrators wearing face masks and holding placards took to the streets.

Poland’s abortion laws were already restrictive, even before the latest rule change. It is estimated that around 100,000 Polish women travel abroad each year for a termination, according to a statement by United Nations experts.

Of more than 1,110 legal abortions in Polish hospitals in in 2019, approximately 98% were carried out because of fetal defects, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Health cited by the Polish Press Agency. The decision to declare terminations unconstitutional in these cases means it will be virtually impossible to obtain an abortion in the country, except in cases of rape, incest or where there is a provable threat to the woman’s life.

The lawmakers proposing the change argued that allowing abortion in cases of fetal defects was discrimination and violated the unborn child’s right to life.

“There is a lot of rage and frustration,” Urszula Grycuk, from Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, told CNN of the reaction in Poland.

“Even wanting to get pregnant in this country, women would be afraid they would not get services like prenatal testing, for example. Many may go abroad to obtain professional pregnancy care,” she added.

Grycuk, the nongovernmental organization’s (NGO’s) international advocacy coordinator, said she and others do not recognize the legitimacy of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. The European Commission has reported concerns over the tribunal’s independence and legitimacy, partly because of how judges are selected.

Not everyone agrees. “I think that the decision of Polish constitution is a major step towards full realization of human rights in our country,” Karolina Pawlowska, director of the Center of International Law at Poland’s Ordo Iuris Institute and a PhD student at the University of Warsaw, told CNN.

“It’s about fetal defects and syndromes like Down syndrome, Turner syndrome or other conditions that are seen as a defect,” she added. “We of course know that many people with Down syndrome, that many people that are disabled, can live a life of satisfaction.”

‘A time for deep concern’

Poland is the only European Union member state – barring Malta – to have such harsh laws. In Malta, abortion is completely banned, even when a woman’s life is at risk.

But Poland’s move to strip away reproductive rights is one of a series of blows to abortion rights in western countries – including the United States and Slovakia – in recent weeks. While Slovakia’s attempt to restrict abortion access was voted down in Parliament, each is an example of regular attempts in modern democracies to make abortion harder to access, despite campaigners saying it needs to be made easier.

In many cases, attempts to roll back abortion rights are being made where there have also been rollbacks on democracy, civil society and human rights.

Last week saw the signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration, which emphasizes the “strength of the family and of a successful and flourishing society” and challenges the right to an abortion.

The document, signed by 30 countries including Poland and Belarus, states that it aims “to express the essential priority of protecting the right to life.”

It was co-sponsored by a group of largely repressive governments: Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Uganda, Hungary – and the United States.

Abortion is more contentious in the US than in Europe. While Roe v. Wade settled the question of whether a woman can legally have one almost 50 years ago, the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court on Monday was met with dismay by abortion rights supporters who fear she’ll overturn it.

In a 2013 essay about how principles of “stare decisis” might impact Roe v. Wade, Barrett, then a professor at Notre Dame University, pointed to the strength of the doctrine but suggested room for some cases to be overturned. “Court watchers,” she wrote, “embrace the possibility of overruling, even if they may want it to be the exception rather than the rule.”

She has previously signed a “right to life ad” that called for the protection of unborn children; suggested access to abortion could be limited; and in 2013 spoke “to her own conviction that life begins at conception” during a professorial talk, according to Notre Dame Magazine.

“This is a time for extraordinarily deep concern about the right to abortion in the United States,” Julie Rikelman, senior director of US litigation at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told CNN.

“At every level of the Federal Court, we now have judges and justices who do not support the right to abortion and so the basic federal constitutional right is in jeopardy in a way that it hasn’t been for decades,” said Rikelman.

She said the right to abortion was also in “critical danger” at a state level, with 468 restrictions enacted since the start of 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization focused on reproductive rights.

That will disproportionately affect poor women, who are more likely to need abortions and to struggle with the expense of the procedure and traveling to a different state, Rikelman said.

“We already know there are 21 states that would ban abortion outright if given the opportunity to do so,” Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University and author of Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present, told CNN when asked what might happen if Roe v Wade is overturned.

Ziegler said recent restrictions on abortion, seen in at least nine states, have a “chilling effect” on women who want a termination but are afraid of the consequences.

Restrictions across Europe

Central and Eastern Europe in particular have, seen multiple attempts to reduce women’s legal entitlements to abortion or to introduce new barriers.

Slovakia’s parliament earlier this month voted against proposed restrictions that would have required women to wait 96 hours before an abortion, banned clinics from “advertising” abortion services, and required women to justify their reasons for seeking an abortion.

It was one of several bills proposing restrictions on reproductive rights that were rejected in Slovakia’s parliament in 2019 and 2020.

In the past decade, several countries including Armenia, Russia, and Georgia introduced preconditions that women must fulfill before they can obtain abortion services.

In other countries attempts to roll back abortion rights have been largely unsuccessful, often following a public outcry and large-scale demonstrations, but “they provide a powerful illustration of the extent and nature of the backlash to the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality in some parts of Europe,” according to a 2017 paper published by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

“A lot of countries in Europe are promoting women’s roles as procreators and as wives and mothers,” Hillary Margolis, senior researcher in women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, told CNN.

“There are different ways these attacks are happening, they’re not always about blatantly rolling back abortion,” said Margolis.

In Germany, where abortion is relatively accessible, information dissemination or advertising by service providers is banned, although doctors may now state they provide the service on their websites, and this has been exploited by anti-abortion groups, she said.

In 2019, two gynecologists were fined in Berlin for “advertising” abortion – and this was widely reported as having stemmed from efforts by anti-abortion activists. Other gynecologists have also been reported by anti-abortion campaigners, according to local media.

An anti-abortion protest "National March for Life," demanding a ban on abortions, in Bratislava, Slovakia on September 2019.

Croatia and Italy have seen extensive use of the “conscience clause,” which allows providers to opt out of offering terminations because of moral objections, Margolis added.

Despite the backlash, human rights lawyer Payal Shah told CNN that it was important to remember there is a “clear global trajectory towards abortion law liberalization.”

“Over the last 25 years nearly 50 countries have actually liberalized their laws and several others have even removed abortion wholesale from their criminal codes,” she said.

New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and most Australian states have decriminalized abortion to remove sanctions.

Countries including Ireland and Cyprus have liberalized to allow abortion up to certain gestational limits, and the likes of France and Germany have introduced reforms to remove barriers – but criminal sanctions are still possible outside certain parameters. There have even been steps to make abortion more accessible in countries with restrictive laws, such as the Philippines and Colombia.

Other countries such as the UK, Ireland and France have temporarily amended laws during the pandemic to allow abortion pills to be taken at home.

But activists say abortion laws still need updating in many countries to remove barriers. And steps taken by developed countries to reduce abortion access can have an impact on other parts of the world.

“The US is … really exporting its political agenda against abortion … under this administration,” said Shah. “The US has lost its legitimacy as a leader in reproductive rights.”

Global attitudes about abortions

Another element affecting abortion access worldwide is the fact that the US is a big donor to NGOs globally but this has been scaled back under President Donald Trump. He reinstated, expanded and renamed a restriction formerly known as the Mexico City Policy – which prohibits foreign NGOs from receiving US funds if they provide abortion services or referrals. Critics refer to it as the Global Gag Rule.

The sector has seen a loss of funding, with services scaled back, leading to greater need in communities, Sarah Shaw, global head of advocacy at Marie Stopes International, an NGO organization that provides abortion services, told CNN.

She said the rule was also damaging partnerships and perceptions around sexual and reproductive health and rights. “This is the bit that’s really sort of starting to change norms and has a really corrosive effect.”

Contrary to what might be expected, research shows that in countries most reliant on US funding, abortions increase by 40% when the policy is in place. Countries that liberalize their laws to increase access usually see the number of abortions drop, thanks in part to increased education, says Shaw.

Most people are in favor of at least some access to abortion. A recent Ipsos Global Advisor survey of nearly 17,500 people from 25 countries found that 44% said abortion should be permitted whenever a woman wants one and 26% said it should be permitted under certain circumstances, such as if a woman has been raped.”

A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that 58% of Americans surveyed say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 37% who said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

And 2018 Gallup polling found that 60% of American adults think first trimester abortions should generally be legal. In another Gallup poll the same year 64% of those questioned said they didn’t want Roe vs. Wade – which guarantees the right to an abortion in the first trimester – to be overturned.

Looking ahead, Wydrzynska says, “We are not worrying about the future.” She is continuing her work with the Abortion Dream Team to help women travel abroad, obtain the abortion pill or find other services and information on terminations. “We have been preparing for most of this.”

She says her team has been traveling Poland since December last year “activating the people in local communities” to become abortion activists and supporters.

“We are not seeking people to work because we have them on our side, months ago.”

CNN’s Artur Osinski, Antonia Mortensen, Zahid Mahmood and Lauren Kent contributed reporting.