The women Wydrzynska and her team spoke to may be forced to travel abroad for the procedure, or left to carry a pregnancy to term even if they know the baby will not survive, since providers could be jailed, she said.
However, President Andrzej Duda submitted a draft amendment to the law on Friday, which would legalize abortion in situations where the baby has “lethal defects” and would die soon after birth.
Of more than 1,110 legal abortions in Polish hospitals in in 2019, approximately 98% were carried out because of fetal defects, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Health cited by the Polish Press Agency. The decision to declare terminations unconstitutional in these cases means it will be virtually impossible to obtain an abortion in the country, except in cases of rape, incest or where there is a provable threat to the woman’s life.
“There is a lot of rage and frustration,” Urszula Grycuk, from Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, told CNN of the reaction in Poland.
“Even wanting to get pregnant in this country, women would be afraid they would not get services like prenatal testing, for example. Many may go abroad to obtain professional pregnancy care,” she added.
Not everyone agrees. “I think that the decision of Polish constitution is a major step towards full realization of human rights in our country,” Karolina Pawlowska, director of the Center of International Law at Poland’s Ordo Iuris Institute and a PhD student at the University of Warsaw, told CNN.
“It’s about fetal defects and syndromes like Down syndrome, Turner syndrome or other conditions that are seen as a defect,” she added. “We of course know that many people with Down syndrome, that many people that are disabled, can live a life of satisfaction.”
‘A time for deep concern’
Poland is the only European Union member state — barring Malta — to have such harsh laws. In Malta, abortion is completely banned, even when a woman’s life is at risk.
But Poland’s move to strip away reproductive rights is one of a series of blows to abortion rights in western countries — including the United States and Slovakia — in recent weeks. While Slovakia’s attempt to restrict abortion access was voted down in Parliament, each is an example of regular attempts in modern democracies to make abortion harder to access, despite campaigners saying it needs to be made easier.
In many cases, attempts to roll back abortion rights are being made where there have also been rollbacks on democracy, civil society and human rights.
The document, signed by 30 countries including Poland and Belarus, states that it aims “to express the essential priority of protecting the right to life.”
It was co-sponsored by a group of largely repressive governments: Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Uganda, Hungary — and the United States.
“This is a time for extraordinarily deep concern about the right to abortion in the United States,” Julie Rikelman, senior director of US litigation at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told CNN.
“At every level of the Federal Court, we now have judges and justices who do not support the right to abortion and so the basic federal constitutional right is in jeopardy in a way that it hasn’t been for decades,” said Rikelman.
That will disproportionately affect poor women, who are more likely to need abortions and to struggle with the expense of the procedure and traveling to a different state, Rikelman said.
Restrictions across Europe
Central and Eastern Europe in particular have, seen multiple attempts to reduce women’s legal entitlements to abortion or to introduce new barriers.
It was one of several bills proposing restrictions on reproductive rights that were rejected in Slovakia’s parliament in 2019 and 2020.
In other countries attempts to roll back abortion rights have been largely unsuccessful, often following a public outcry and large-scale demonstrations, but “they provide a powerful illustration of the extent and nature of the backlash to the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality in some parts of Europe,” according to a 2017 paper published by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.
“A lot of countries in Europe are promoting women’s roles as procreators and as wives and mothers,” Hillary Margolis, senior researcher in women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, told CNN.
“There are different ways these attacks are happening, they’re not always about blatantly rolling back abortion,” said Margolis.
Despite the backlash, human rights lawyer Payal Shah told CNN that it was important to remember there is a “clear global trajectory towards abortion law liberalization.”
New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and most Australian states have decriminalized abortion to remove sanctions.
But activists say abortion laws still need updating in many countries to remove barriers. And steps taken by developed countries to reduce abortion access can have an impact on other parts of the world.
“The US is … really exporting its political agenda against abortion … under this administration,” said Shah. “The US has lost its legitimacy as a leader in reproductive rights.”
Global attitudes about abortions
The sector has seen a loss of funding, with services scaled back, leading to greater need in communities, Sarah Shaw, global head of advocacy at Marie Stopes International, an NGO organization that provides abortion services, told CNN.
She said the rule was also damaging partnerships and perceptions around sexual and reproductive health and rights. “This is the bit that’s really sort of starting to change norms and has a really corrosive effect.”
Looking ahead, Wydrzynska says, “We are not worrying about the future.” She is continuing her work with the Abortion Dream Team to help women travel abroad, obtain the abortion pill or find other services and information on terminations. “We have been preparing for most of this.”
She says her team has been traveling Poland since December last year “activating the people in local communities” to become abortion activists and supporters.
“We are not seeking people to work because we have them on our side, months ago.”
CNN’s Artur Osinski, Antonia Mortensen, Zahid Mahmood and Lauren Kent contributed reporting.