“Podziemne Państwo Kobiet” is both a documentary and a collection of abortion stories from Polish women who had illegal abortions in the past two decades. Poland most likely is the only country in the world that had abortions legal by law (1956-1993) and changed it “backward”. We ended up having one of the most restrictive laws in the world, and the legislators were smart, by avoiding criminalizing women (with whom society would sympathize) and focusing instead on everyone else who assists with abortions (the penalties are up to 8 years in prison), creating a system of fear and paranoia.
The first thing that strikes about abortion in Poland is the statistics - according to Polish Ministry of Health in 2013, there were 744 legal abortions and 718 of them due to the risk of birth defects. 3 of them due to rape and 23 due to the risk posed to women health. In 2015 there were 1044 legal abortions. For a country with 38 million inhabitants, these numbers seem just wrong. In Spain or UK, these numbers are 200 or 400 times higher. And it’s estimated that illegal abortions every year account for between 80.000- 200.000 cases in Poland.
So, what kind of abortions are available in the underground and how do women access it?
Chirurgical abortions are one of the common ways. They usually happen in hidden spaces, often barely up to any standards, with basic equipment, sometimes only in the presence of doctor (women who come to get the abortion might end up assisting them). The price of an abortion is at least 2000 zl (500 euros), and it tends to go up with the standard. In some cases, when doctors are well connected, they can even perform them in hospitals, which would double the price. Many doctors who refused to perform a legal abortion are perfectly fine with doing it illegally after settling the price with their patients.
Considering that the minimal wage in Poland is 1850 zl, and the average is 4000 (yet many people struggle to get contracts, work on 3/4 of full time, or often work on irregular gigs earning even less than 1000 zł a month with no minimal wage per hour), the price is quite prohibitive and exclusive. Many women end up taking loans to pay off their abortions.
Nowadays, women contact pro-choice organizations to find out who can help them with abortion. Since the 90ties, press and internet advertisements were the ways to find doctors who’d perform them. Such services would be named as “painless restoration of menstruation” - and involve either chirurgical help or access to drugs, highly overpriced. In many cases a friend or a relative knows who does it in your town. The fear and paranoia remain anyhow - women are asked to leave the clinic right after the procedure is done, regardless of their condition, in order not to bring suspicion. They’re asked to park their cars far away from the place of appointment.
Some of the informal groups specialize in organizing abortions abroad. Ciocia Basia, a group of volunteer activist, helps to organize legal abortions in Berlin. For a price of 290/390 euros, they arrange pharmacological and chirurgical abortions in clinics, help with translations and offer a couch for the women coming over. Another popular destination is Slovakia and Czech Republic - it’s super easy to find websites in Poland of clinics in these countries that provide with professional and anonymous help. Prices are similar to those in Polish underground.
And then you have the pharmacological abortion. There are two drugs containing misoprostol registered and available in Poland, one of which can be bought without the prescription. Women usually end up making up stories about stomach pain or rheumatic grandmothers to buy them. Sometimes both of them can be obtained from “under the counter”, forums also advise to ask a man to help buy them. Misoprostol should be accompanied by mifepristone to increase effectiveness (the combination of both has 98% effectiveness, while only misoprostol alone is between 80-90%), but the latter drug is not registered in Poland. In this case organizations such as Women on Waves help to buy and ship them from other countries (they ask for donation of minimum of 70 euros, but they do support women in economic difficulties by providing them for free). It is well known that some of the doctors write prescriptions for these drugs (a pack of 12 costs 25 zl, but can be sold 10 or more times more expensive on the black market) and help women get access to them via advertisements. It’s impossible to track as these drugs are not refunded by the state - therefore not registered anywhere.
Due to lack of widespread support, some of the women organize support groups on online forums. They look for other women who seek abortions or just had one, share their stories and explain to each other what happens to their bodies, how to access drugs, if nausea is a normal reaction to pills, etc. As in some cases, pharmacological abortion can lead to prolonged bleeding and even death, they offer each other a call of support during the abortion, which takes up to a day. It’s recommended to call for an ambulance in case of emergency - doctors cannot tell if the miscarriage was illegally inducted or not, and that save lives in some instances of home abortions.
I am still reading some more about the abortion underground in Poland, and if I find some more interesting facts, I will updated this text. I also encourage you to share your stories on how women access abortion in countries with restrictive law.