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An Abortion of Rights: The Problem with Poland’s Newest Ruling

By: Sarah Ansari

Protests have been raging in Poland since October 22, when the court passed a ban on abortions for fetal anomalies, which made up the majority of legal abortions within the country in 2019. With the ban in place, abortions are now only allowed under Polish law in the cases of incest, rape, or threat to the parent’s health. Poland’s ties with the Catholic Church, however, also enable the doctors themselves to refuse abortions or contraceptives on the grounds of religion. While this mass of demonstrations is one of the largest the country has seen in decades, it is not the first surrounding the matter of abortion. Government officials in Poland have repeatedly attempted to make the legislation regarding the termination of pregnancy stricter, but have been met with opposition and protests each time.

The most common argument besides religious beliefs against the termination of pregnancy in the case of fetal defects is that it’s cruel to tamper with potential life simply because of disability. However, this sentiment projects blame entirely onto the parent without looking at the situation that led to them making their choice. 

So, What is the Situation?

Although there’s no way to pry into the mind of every person who decides to get an abortion, we can come to an educated guess about the factors that play into the decision to terminate a pregnancy due to fetal anomalies by looking at the numbers. 

Most countries rule that abortion is permitted until the 12th or 20th week of pregnancy. After the 12th week, doctors willing to perform the procedure are harder to find, except in some rare circumstances. The first trimester screening which looks for fetal defects, however, occurs between the 11th and 13th weeks of pregnancy

Many pregnancies are unplanned, and may go undetected for a bit longer than usual, especially since symptoms vary between individuals– with some experiencing them after a few weeks, and others not experiencing them for months. An estimate for the amount of time it takes to be alerted to an unplanned pregnancy is 4 weeks, a.k.a the time it would take to notice a missed period. Between awareness of the pregnancy and the 12th week, therefore, the parent has 8 weeks (around 2 months) to make their choice. Abortion is a life-altering decision, and one that does take time to consider, although it turns out that only 10-18% of women who approached an abortion clinic for information were uncertain about getting one.

Compiling all this information, it’s safe to say that at the point when the first trimester screening is performed, enough time has passed to deduce that the parent wants to keep the child. To flip that decision is not something that they would take lightly; it doesn’t take a study (but here’s one anyway) to show that the parent is far from apathetic about the fetus (as some in opposition to abortion would believe), but undergoes severe trauma and grief.

Then, Why Do They Choose to Abort?

While it’s easy to say that the parent should have the child regardless of the fetal anomalies, some parents simply can not afford to accommodate a kid with disabilities. A study regarding the costs to raise a child with a disability until the age of 18 revealed added expenses ranging from $180-$8,000 a year (NOTE: the definition of disability is this study was very broad, so the minimum costs could be higher, depending on criteria). The cost of raising a child in the United States until age 18 is approximately $233,000. Going with a median number of about $4,000/yr ($72,000 over 18 years) for the added costs of raising a child with a disability in the U.S., we discover that it’s approximately 31% more expensive.

The average cost of raising a child in Poland is 49,000 pln. Assuming that Poland’s healthcare system is not as bad as the United States’ (although I will talk more later about how it still is not the best), I will give a rough estimate of about 20% higher expenses for raising a child with a disability– bringing the grand total to 58,800 pln. The average salary in Poland is around 5,000 pln/yr.  Raising a child with a disability costs about 12 years of salary versus the typical 9 years worth.

Enough with the Numbers, What Does this Mean?

It’s simple, really; as much as a person might want to have a child (although it’s okay if they don’t), they sometimes do not have the means to provide the kid with the life they deserve, and should not be shamed for that.

People desperate enough to get abortions will find a means to obtain one regardless, and may resort to dangerous methods. Ultimately the fixation upon restricting access to abortions comes down to one thing: a prioritzation of prenatal life, and a disregard for the already-born.

Abortions are allowed if the parent’s health is in danger. I’m sure you recall me saying that at the beginning of this article, unless the big mass of numbers in the middle made your eyes go all fuzzy. The toll of working tirelessly just to make ends meet to provide for both parent and child is in itself a detriment to health for both parties. While the Polish government does provide some assistance for those raising children with disabilities, the stipends granted are still not nearly enough, and often only cover the child’s bare necessities. The age-old (and totally true) saying is that disability is a product of environment, rather than the fault of an individual. The expenses behind caring for a child with a disability points towards systemic problems with how countries deal with disabilities, and blame should be placed upon the system, rather than the individuals who fall victim to it.

Back to Poland

With all the information gathered about the reasons someone might choose to undergo an abortion for prenatal defects, the outrage felt by protestors is justified. However, the government is attempting to shift the rhetoric of blame back to the people, rather than holding themselves accountable.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited in Poland, yet the protests break this rule. The Polish government blames the recent spike in coronavirus cases on protestors, choosing to villainize them rather than listen to what they’re saying. Yes, protesting during a pandemic is less than ideal, but without action, the people would have to watch their rights stripped away in front of their eyes. Many believe that the Polish government even took advantage of the pandemic in the hopes that the law would pass without a fight.

In fact, the government is the primary actor to blame for the surge of COVID cases, not the people. As recently as the end of October (around the time when the protests began), the German government reached out to Poland to offer aid in dealing with the pandemic. While Polish officials thanked Germany, they insisted that they need no outside help, and that they are self-sufficient.While some may argue that this statement was made before the protests began to grow, and that perhaps Poland was self-sufficient at the time their refusal of aid was made, that notion is incorrect. Poland has been having issues dealing with the coronavirus for months now, almost since the virus began (take this article written in April as an example). To that end, officials are using the virus as an excuse of convenience to silence protestors, rather than taking active measures to stop the spread. 

Amidst the villainization of protestors, Poland has also mobilized riot police to monitor the crowds. While protestors did partake in vandalism, the demonstrations were largely peaceful. Either way, property damage does not justify the pepper spraying of protestors and excessive use of force. Here are links to some twitter posts that capture instances of brutality, but please be aware that footage can be graphic. These examples are also not meant to sensationalize violence, but to provide evidence for people who would argue in favour of the Polish police. (x, x, x, x)

The most recent update regarding the abortion ban in Poland has it that the ruling will be delayed, which is only a minor victory for protestors. Officials still intend to carry through with their plans, although they are willing to engage in “dialogue” with the citizens. Polish president Andrzej Duda has attempted to placate protestors by offering a “compromise” that will allow abortions in the case of fatal fetal defects. Such a compromise is only lip-service to attempt to mitigate backlash, rather than a substantive acknowledgment of the reasoning behind the protests. The Polish government and its abortion rulings are, ultimately, just another instance in which a majority (cis) male-dominated body places restrictions upon women and others with reproductive capacities without letting the people who are affected voice their own opinions.

If you wish to help protestors, this website provides some resources that you can contribute to: