"Undress, Squat, Cough" — Police In Poland Ramp Up The Abortion Crackdown
Poland, known for having some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, only allows the procedure in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. But even when abortions are performed legally, women can be met with criminal accusations from the police.
This article was updated on July 26, 2023 at 12:30 p.m.
KRAKOW — The arrest of a woman who legally took abortion pills in Poland has prompted protests outside of the police prefecture in Krakow, the latest in a series of events which has once again pushed the issue to the forefront of the country's politics. The crowd of demonstrators included the woman arrested — known only by her first name, Joanna — who identified the five officers at the front of the prefecture as the same ones who had put her under arrest.
"In that moment, I was no longer a person (to them)," Joanna told the crowd, in tears as she spoke about her arrest.
“The police asked me to undress, squat and cough," Joanna says in the report. “I undressed, but I didn’t take off my underwear, because I was still bleeding,” she said, calling the experience “humiliating.”
She was joined by Marta Lempart, the face of the "women's strike" movement that made headlines in 2020 as one of the largest protests in modern Polish history, second only to the Solidarity movement which led to the fall of the communist government in 1989. The movement took place after Poland's ruling party banned abortions in the case of fetal birth defects, which had accounted for one-third of legal pregnancy terminations in the country at the time.
Though the protests in Krakow, where the incident occurred, were the largest, demonstrations of solidarity also took place in other Polish cities, including Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan, and Rzeszow.
Poland's conservative government has made restricting abortion access a guiding pillar since returning to power in 2015. Now that appears to include orders to police to detain women seeking access to terminate a pregnancy in the case of health risks, one of the few exceptions to the strict national abortion bans in the country.
Last week, Joanna received mass media attention in Poland after police detained her, wrongfully claiming she had been pressured into having an abortion. She had purchased abortion pills on her own volition after health problems, and had decided to take them, which is not punishable in Poland.
But the state saw it differently, and Joanna was met at the hospital by four uniformed officers, as reported on Polish television program Fakty on TVN.
Poland has passed several measures in recent years to have arguably Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. Increasingly, the crackdown even includes arrests when abortions are performed legally. Joanna is one of several women who have faced investigations, threats, and for some, even fatal health consequences, even as the law still allows abortion in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk
In March, the leader of the organization, activist Justyna Wydrzyńska, was found guilty of assisting abortions. The event marked “the first time in recent history in which a human rights defender in Europe has been prosecuted and convicted for assisting with access to abortion,” according to the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR).
About a month ago, Dorota, a 33-year old woman from Bochnia, a town in southern Poland, died after a Polish hospital refused to perform an abortion which would have saved her life. Both her and the child she was carrying were pronounced dead on the same day.
Dorota's death occurred right after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a complaint by eight Polish women who argued that they were forced to carry their pregnancies to term despite severe fetal abnormalities. This is one of several thousand complaints Polish women have filed to the ECHR after a 2020 ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal further restricted the country’s already stringent abortion rights.
As Poland continues enforcing its strict anti-abortion measures, even those who obtain the procedure legally worry that they may become targets.
Police in waiting
After finding out that her pregnancy was going to have a negative impact on her health, Joanna decided to order abortion pills online. But when these too were giving her negative physical and psychological symptoms, she contacted her doctor.
When she went to the emergency department of the military hospital in Krakow, the police were already waiting for her.
“There were four men surrounding one frightened woman,” said one of the doctors on duty, who wished to remain anonymous. "They formed a line around the patient, making our job more difficult."
In the presence of all of the other patients, Joanna’s belongings were searched, and authorities took her laptop and cell phone.
Emergency contraceptive pills
A police state
Video taken at the scene shows Joanna crying, and indicating to police that her laptop is in the bag she brought with her. The doctors on duty at the ER were searched as well, and Joanna was escorted by the police to the Narutowicz hospital. More police were waiting there, and another patrol was called for backup.
For women, even those who follow legal measures to terminate their pregnancies, “it can feel like living in a police state,” Kamila Ferenc, from the Foundation of Women’s Affairs and Family Planning, told TVN.
The police gave no comment to journalists. The authorities reportedly believe that someone had pressured Joanna into obtaining an abortion illegally, which is expressed in articles 151 and 152 part 2 of the Polish Penal Code. Joanna underlines that she told the police multiple times that no one had forced her or pressured her into getting this abortion.
Abortion pills in Poland
Although “assisting someone in terminating a pregnancy” is illegal, using abortion pills is not punishable by law in Poland, as explained by the organization Abortion Dream Team.
The activists also add that, due to medical privacy laws, doctors cannot inform police when a patient shows up to their offices after having an abortion. “The duty of a doctor is to care for the well-being of their patients, and not to report potential crimes of aiding abortions."
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