31 August 2010

Poland: ‘Abortion tourism’ reflects restrictive law

Leading Polish activists held a civil hearing at the Polish parliament on 26 August on the rising number of Polish women who are travelling abroad to obtain access to abortion.

Doctors from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Britain who regularly treat Polish women also attended the meeting, Ms Magazine reports.

A doctor’s written notice authorising an abortion procedure is required to obtain an abortion in Poland, where strict abortion laws only allow abortion in cases of a threat to a woman’s life or health, severe and permanent handicaps of the fetus, and rape or incest. The Catholic Church was influential in a 1993 compromise that led to Poland’s current abortion laws.

Poland, a country of 38 million where the Catholic Church retains considerable clout, has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the 27-nation European Union.

Official statistics show only several hundred abortions are performed every year, but pro-choice campaigners say underground abortions are very common, Reuters reports.

‘We estimate… that on average 150,000 abortions are performed per year,’ Wanda Nowicka, head of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, told the meeting. ‘Of this number, some 10-15 percent of abortions are performed abroad and this number is definitely growing.’

The doctors said women sought abortions abroad because they were illegal at home and often performed in poor conditions, and they fear social ostracism. An illegal abortion in Poland costs 2,000-4,000 zlotys ($640-$1,270), compared to 400-600 euros ($510-$760) in Germany, 280 euros in the Netherlands and 450-2,000 pounds ($700-$3,120) in Britain, they said.

The website of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning notes that most women go to Poland’s East and South neighbouring countries, for example Lvov (Ukraine), Druskienniki (Lithuania), Kaliningrad (Russia), Minsk (Bielorus), the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Fewer women can afford to seek abortion in Western countries, but those that do most frequently go to Holland, Germany, Belgium and Austria.

The British media has previously reported ‘abortion tourism’ from Poland in scandalised terms, claiming that women are frequently travelling to the UK to get abortions free on the National Health Service.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, said:

‘In 2009 just 20 Polish women were included in the official statistics for the number of women from overseas who had abortions in Britain. However, this does not include the many Polish women who are able to claim free NHS care because they are registered to work or studying, are resident in Britain. Arrangements now exist for reciprocal health care between European countries.

‘Privately paid for abortions in Britain are relatively expensive; but Polish women are smart and who can blame them if they travel to get the care they need. No one knows exactly how many Polish women have abortions in Britain - it may be thousands. At BPAS we treat, without prejudice, anyone who wants our care and is lawfully able to receive it.’

Poland lost a case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 to Alicja Tysiac, who nearly went blind after giving birth to a third child following failed attempts to find a doctor who would perform a legal abortion for her.

More Polish women seen seeking abortions abroad. Reuters, 26 August 2010

Polish Parliament Hearing Held Regarding Women Traveling for Abortions. Ms magazine, 27 August 2010

Poland: ‘Abortion tourism’ ad causes reaction in UK. Abortion Review, 17 March 2010