A demonstration against Poland’s abortion ban in Warsaw, November 2020

Justyna Wydrzyńska understands how lonely it can be for women seeking an abortion in Poland. She had an unwanted pregnancy in 2006, a time when reliable and unbiased information about abortions was hard to come by. Wydrzyńska eventually terminated her pregnancy with Women on Web, an international NGO that sends abortion pills to women living in countries where access is restricted.

The same year, she co-founded the website Kobiety w Sieci (Women on the Net), Poland’s first online forum supporting women seeking abortions, contraception or sex education. “It’s a safe space where people can talk about their emotions and what is happening to their bodies, without any criticism,” she says. What started as a volunteer project, on the side of her job in the engineering industry, turned into a full-time commitment. The forum now partners with Abortion Without Borders (AWB), a network of five support groups from four countries that was set up in 2019 to help women access abortion in Poland and abroad.

Over a year later, AWB has helped thousands of women in Poland face two major challenges: the pandemic, which created logistical obstacles to accessing abortion abroad; and new restrictions on terminations that have amounted to a near-total ban. Poland, a staunchly Catholic country of 38 million, already had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. In October 2020, the country’s constitutional court outlawed abortion in cases where a foetus is severely damaged or malformed. Last year, 98 per cent of legal abortions that were performed in the country were because of foetal abnormalities. This decision means that almost all abortions are banned.

The ruling pushed hundreds of thousands of people to protest for weeks, in the largest national demonstrations since the fall of communism. They carried banners with slogans like “My body, my choice”. The demonstrations morphed into an outpouring of anger against the nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) and its embrace of the Catholic Church. “Fuck PiS!” became the omnipresent anthem.


Since 1994, more than 30 countries have liberalised abortion laws. In 2018 the Republic of Ireland allowed terminations, in most cases, up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Last December, Argentina made it legal up to 14 weeks. Poland has moved in the opposite direction. Yet restrictions do not result in fewer terminations: they only increase the number of women who seek abortion via illegal and unsafe methods. The Guttmacher Institute reported that women have abortions at about the same rate in countries with the most restrictive laws, as they do in countries where the procedure is available without restriction. Each year, about 23,000 women worldwide die of unsafe procedures and tens of thousands experience significant health complications, according to the WHO.

Many women in Poland can remember a time when abortion was easy to access. Under the country’s socialist party, abortion was legalised in 1956, available up to 14 weeks for medical and socioeconomic reasons. But as politicians began bowing to the power of the Catholic Church, access was restricted.

During the 1980s, the Church supported the pro-democracy Solidarity, the popular trade union movement that managed to overthrow the communist leadership in 1989. The Church has since remained deeply embedded in politics, with an ability to “openly demand to have influence over a variety of issues,” says Marta Kotwas, a doctoral researcher at University College London. One of its main priorities was restricting abortion.

In 1993, under pressure from Pope John Paul II, Poland passed a law banning abortion with three exceptions: if the mother’s life or health is endangered; if the foetus has a severe congenital disorder; or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Officials called it a compromise between the Church and political parties. “For feminists it was a rotten compromise because it didn’t take into account the opinion of feminists and the mood of society,” says Kotwas. Surveys showed 60 per cent of Poles opposed the bill.

Abortion left the public sphere and became a black market. Doctors who had previously performed procedures in public hospitals offered illegal abortions in private clinics to those who could afford to pay anything from 1,500 (£278) to 4,000 zloty (£740). The average monthly wage is 5,170 zloty (£957). In 2011, the anthropologist Agata Chełstowska estimated that illegal abortions were generating as much as $95 million a year tax-free for medical practitioners, in an industry that turns “sin into gold”.

Since Poland’s Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, the line between religion and politics has become even more blurred. Jarslow Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, once said: “Who raises a hand against the Church, wanting to destroy it, raises a hand against Poland.” In 2016, PiS and the Church backed a bill drafted by the ultra-conservative think-tank Ordo Iuris that would ban abortion in all circumstances except to protect the life of the pregnant woman. It also proposed prison sentences for women seeking abortions and even the potential for “suspicious” miscarriages to be investigated. Outrage over the bill drove thousands of people to the streets, in what became known as the Black Protests, forcing a quick retreat by the government.

But around a week after the bill was rejected, Kaczyński declared: “We strive to ensure that even very difficult pregnancies, when the child is condemned to death, is severely deformed, will end in birth, so that the child can be christened, buried, given a name.” Kaczynski got what he hoped for in October last year, when the constitutional court outlawed abortion in cases of foetal abnormality. The Constitutional Tribunal is nominally independent, but many argue that PiS influenced the decision, having nominated most of its judges following controversial reforms that the EU have criticised as politicising the courts. The general public are also suspicious. In a recent poll of the Polish people by SW Research, 63 per cent of respondents expressed the view that the ruling party had influenced the tribunal’s decision, while just 17 per cent of respondents thought it had not.


Around the world, abortion rates decline as the use of contraceptives goes up. But Poland has one of the lowest rates of contraception take-up in the EU, with less than half of partnered women using a modern method, according to a 2015 UN report. Since 2017, women have been required to get a doctor’s prescription for the morning-after pill, which was previously available over the counter. Under a “conscience clause,” medical personnel can also deny women contraception and refuse to carry out abortions, on the grounds of their religious beliefs.

Poor access to sex education is another issue. Schools in Poland do not usually offer formal sex education, instead teaching students how to “prepare for family life”, based on traditional ideas of family, marriage and Christian morality. Last year, the government debated a law that would ban sex education from the national curriculum, treating it as “paedophilia”. This would mean that any person found to be “encouraging” sexual behaviour in a person under 15 could get prison time. The bill has since been stalled.

It is in this context that the new restrictions on abortion have been brought in. The chilling effect of the October ruling was quickly felt by pro-choice groups. In the following six weeks, the Abortion Without Borders hotline received 2,500 calls – almost as many calls as it fielded during its entire first 10 and a half months in operation. Up to 300 women called in one day, some of whom said they were worried about accessing abortion if their foetus was unviable.

Most calls are about abortion pills, which can be taken up to the 12th week of pregnancy at home. AWB recommends international organisations such as Women on Web, the NGO that Wydrzyńska used back in 2006, and Women Help Women, which deliver them for a voluntary fee. Pills are not sold by doctors or hospitals in Poland, but they can be purchased from abroad and administered legally by the pregnant person themselves. AWB’s members offer to stay on the phone with women while they take the pills “to try to make them feel as safe as possible”, Wydrzyńska says. For women who require a surgical abortion abroad, AWB refers them to activist groups in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.

One such group is Ciocia Basia in Berlin, a collective of 15 activists that partners with AWB. Funded through public donations, Ciocia Basia helps to arrange travel, free accommodation and clinic appointments, and provides translations to Polish. “Even if women speak English or German they want us to be there with them for company,” says Zuzanna Dziuban, a Polish academic and member of the group. “People coming from Poland are more nervous than their counterparts in Germany. It’s not so much because of the procedure itself but the stigma that forces them into loneliness and forces them to rely on the help of strangers,” she says.

The pandemic and ruling led to a huge jump in the number of women travelling for the procedure, due to reduced access in Poland, combined with job losses and economic uncertainty. “Our phone and mailbox are crazily busy,” says Dziuban, “If the pandemic doubled the number, then the ruling tripled it.”

In 2020, Ciocia Basia helped 250 people travel to Berlin compared to 90 people in 2019. As of mid-March, they facilitate abortions for eight to ten women a week.The group subsidises or fully covers the €400 cost of the procedure, depending on the woman’s financial situation. “We’ve never had to turn someone away because of a lack of funds. We’ll do everything we can to help them out even if it means paying from our own pocket and waiting to be reimbursed when we raise more money,” says Dziuban.


Although lockdown measures added logistical challenges, activists say that almost all women have been able to travel for the procedure by obtaining a document proving a medical emergency. Ciocia Basia, meanwhile, have taken on new responsibilities such as organising Covid-19 tests and providing more accommodation at the homes of its volunteers and members, because hotels were forced to close. “It’s stressful but we manage,” says Dziuban. The Berlin activists are now able to refer Polish women to groups in the Czech Republic and Austria, which were set up in October to meet the surge in demand for help. Compared to Berlin, these destinations are easier for people in southern Poland to reach.

Another challenge activists face is hostility from the anti-choice groups. In early March, at least six NGOs in Poland received an anonymous email saying a bomb had been planted on their premises as “payback” for supporting the pro-choice protests. “We’ll blow it up. We will act decisively,” the anonymous senders wrote. The threat was empty – there were no bombs – but it made pro-choice activists question their safety.

Wydrzyńska says “we know [anti-choice groups] are watching us,” citing the fact that one such group created posters that feature her face and that of other pro-choice activists with the caption “killing team”. But she says it doesn’t bother her. “We laugh at this. For us it’s quite good, free advertisement. We’re not afraid of them and we know we have a lot of allies in this country and Europe.” However, she is bothered by anti-choice activists joining online support forums for people seeking information about abortion in order to harrass them. But if the anti-choice groups have “become more aggressive, there’s only one reason,” she says, “the pro-choice movement is strong and the narrative changing in Poland.”

Although PiS attempted to portray those who protested against the ruling on abortion as violent radicals, polls found that the majority of people in Poland supported the demonstrations and were against the ruling. An Estimator survey in October 2020 found that a total of 79 per cent of respondents considered the ruling “definitely bad” or “rather bad”, while just 21 per cent thought it was “definitely good” or “rather good”. An IBRiS poll from March shows that 78 per cent of people favoured less restrictive abortion laws, 25 per cent wanted a return to the 1993 law and 25 per cent supported abortion on demand up to 12 weeks. It’s hardly surprising that the popularity of PiS has declined since the demonstrations; the share of support for the party fell from 44 per cent in September 2020 to 32 per cent in April.

Wydrzyńska and Dziuban both say that their organisations have received more support following the ruling. Public donations to Ciocia Basia increased, as they did during the Black Protests. “It’s really empowering,” says Dziuban. And Wydrzyńska says that more doctors have given out the number of AWB’s hotline. She has also received more calls, emails and Facebook messages from therapists and psychologists who want to volunteer their skills. “Five years ago, it was hard to find supporters,” she says, “I’m optimistic that things can change for women in the next ten years.”

This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.