Since Texas effectively banned most abortions, I’ve been in a state of perpetual deja vu. The media coverage and the language used at both ends of the political spectrum all ring close to home. Weirdly so, given that home is 5,000 miles away from Texas.
I’m Polish, and most of my life I’ve lived under one of the strictest abortion laws in the world. Until recently, the procedure was legal in only three instances: when pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, when it posed a threat to the mother’s life, or in cases of severe and irreversible fetal abnormalities. In October 2020, the law was made even more restrictive — despite a series of nationwide abortion-rights demonstrations — to rule out the third instance, which accounted for 98 percent of legal abortions in Poland.
So even if the fetus has a severe genetic disorder, the pregnant person is now forced to carry to term. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice spokeswoman announced that people who find themselves in such situations will be granted separate rooms in perinatal hospices where they can “cry it out” in privacy. The government offers them $1,000 — a prize rather than a benefit, since it is a one-off transfer. After that, the state turns a blind eye. That’s the thing about the anti-abortion lobby — their “pro-life” ambitions usually end with birth.
On the day the new law went into effect, I started to think about my options. If I were pregnant and needed an abortion, the decision would not be mine. It would be up to a doctor to decide whether the pregnancy threatened my health and up to a prosecutor to confirm whether I experienced sexual violence. Cases have been reported in which both instances obstructed the process in fear of ostracism or reluctant to face the legal consequences of providing abortion. In 2000, Alicja Tysiąc, a mother of two suffering from retinopathy, was denied the right to abort, despite the fact that the third birth would damage her eyesight and render her incapable of work.
Ever since I can remember, abortion was not a public health issue in Poland. It was presented as an ideological problem. This meant that politicians could duck questions about it, that religion entered most debates faster than science, and that there existed only one socially acceptable way to talk about abortion, by linking it with trauma or sin. Abortion was simply not something that we, as women, had the right to. As author Katarzyna Wężyk put it: “A Polish woman is always seen as mature enough to give birth and raise a child, but never mature enough to choose abortion.”
In 2020 there were only 1,076 legal abortions in Poland, 1,053 of them due to genetic abnormalities of the fetus. Since that reason is no longer valid, only 23 procedures would have been legal last year — in a country of 38 million people.
But the legal reality is far removed from the everyday one. Nongovernmental organizations estimate the underground abortion industry — which performs up to 150,000 procedures in Poland a year — could be worth even $75 million. A 2013 national survey showed that at least 1 in 4 Polish women had an abortion at some point in her life. The choice is between a pharmacological abortion at home, traveling to one of the neighboring countries with more liberal abortion laws, or an underground surgical procedure in Poland. The latter often takes place in the private offices of the same doctors who refuse to perform legal abortions in hospitals, on the grounds of conscientious objection. They can be found online under camouflaged ads such as “Inducing menstruation” or “Gynaecologist — full service.”
Texas and other US states with rigorous abortion laws are on course for a similar scenario. With a strong anti-choice lobby and the current make-up of the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade is in grave danger.
And yet there are multiple studies confirming that restrictive abortion laws do not stop abortions from happening; it only makes them less safe, especially for under-privileged people. A global study published by The Lancet in 2016 reported that there are more abortions taking place in regions where the procedure is restrictive than in those with liberal laws.
Part of the reason is that liberal legislation usually goes hand in hand with noncoercive strategies aimed at reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, such as: easily available contraception, comprehensive sex education, high-quality early childhood care, or job security for mothers. But countries and states with restrictive abortion laws rarely bother with such niceties. On the contrary, these laws are often followed by other forms of gender-based discrimination, such as cutting funding for NGOs that work to prevent sexual and domestic violence. Neither Poland nor Texas are exceptions here.
This points to the underlying motives of the antiabortion lobby. It is not about the fetuses. It is somewhat about sexual freedom. But most of all, it is about gender. Stigmatizing abortion and pushing it underground is a way of showing pregnant people where their place is — in private rooms where they can “cry it out,” so that their suffering becomes invisible. So that the personal is no longer political.
Ada Petriczko is the 2021 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.