Contemporary Women’s Hell

Marcy Bloom does U.S. advocacy and capacity building for GIRE – El Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida/The Information Group on Reproductive Choice.

[img_assist|nid=1642|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=99|height=100]Over the years I have contemplated and written about the critical importance of destigmatizing abortion in US culture. That mission has now expanded to the international realm. So, when I discovered a 2005 document from the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, "Contemporary Women's Hell: Polish Women's Stories," I was intrigued.

A sad and tragic title, but one that all too accurately describes the current painful abortion situation in Poland, as well as in far too many parts of the world.

Poland has a shifting stand on legal abortion. The liberal law under Communist rule, from 1956-1993, allowed abortion on request and was provided in both public hospitals and private clinics. In contrast, the current anti-abortion law that followed in 1993 is, in reality, an almost complete ban on abortion. It is an understatement to say that the Catholic Church is very powerful there and renders the law hollow as only 150 legal abortions are performed each year. The current estimate of illegal abortions, according to the federation, ranges from 80,000-200,000 every year. As Wanda Nowicka, president of the federation, writes: "Paradoxically, Polish women lost their right to decide just (a few years) after Polish society won back its independence and reinstalled democracy in 1989."

So – as is true throughout the world, Polish women go through hell trying to obtain safe abortions. They are mistreated – even abused – by the medical profession and by law enforcement institutions. Their dignity, privacy, and right to safe health care are violated. Treated with blatant disrespect, they gamble with their health and their lives. Sometimes they lose.

And sometimes they fight back.

In 2000, Alicja Tysiac, a pregnant and severely visually-impaired woman, attempted to obtain an abortion on the grounds that giving birth would severely damage her already-fragile eyesight. In fact, the three ophthalmologists with whom she consulted stated that giving birth to a third child was indeed a serious health risk and would, in fact, cause her to "go blind." Still, all refused to issue the certificate necessary for the abortion to be performed. After numerous delays, Alicja was eventually successful in obtaining the precious certificate, yet was still denied the abortion at a public hospital in Warsaw when a gynecologist stated that "there was no medical reason to have the abortion."

Am I mistaken to believe that impending blindness is a serious medical concern? Certainly blindness can take many forms and is clearly an affliction of at least some members of the Polish medical profession who continued to turn their backs on Alicja.

Tragically, as expected, after the delivery, Alicja's eyesight deteriorated due to retinal hemorrhage and blindness is now a serious risk for her as corrective surgery is not possible in her case.

She finally decided to fight back and was still denied justice by the Polish legal system which demonstrated their own blindness as they continued to treat her like a criminal through various court actions. In February, 2005, Alicja filed a complaint- "Tysiac v. Poland" – with the European Court of Human Rights by stating that Poland's abortion law violated her rights as guaranteed by two articles of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Respectively, Articles 8 and 14 guarantee "respect for privacy and family life" and "prohibition of discrimination." Alicja found none of this as she went through hell attempting to obtain a legal abortion.

In February, 2006, the European Court held a rarely-granted oral hearing in the case and this past June declared it admissible, finding that Alicja's application "raises serious issues of fact and law under the Convention, the determination of which requires an examination of the merits."

This is hopeful. Perhaps Alicja will eventually find the justice she so deserves, although that may be small comfort to her by now.

Alicja currently battles many personal difficulties and ongoing health problems, including blindness. She has been classified as having a permanent first-degree disability and will always require assistance from another person. Her living situation, including her ability to pay the rent in her tiny apartment, as well as feed her children, has deteriorated as dramatically as her health. Still, she writes "All we can do is hope that one day life will be better."

I hope that for you too, Alicja. You didn't need to go though this "contemporary women's hell." No woman does.

And that is why I will continue to write about destigmatizing abortion.

Editor's note: For more information, read the Reuters article "Catholic Poland Mulls Tighter Abortion Laws."

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