March 21, 2020 / 9:20 AM / 18 days ago

Abortion activists in Poland fret as coronavirus curbs access

WARSAW (Reuters) - Natalia Broniarczyk, an activist with a charity that assists Polish women who want to terminate pregnancies, says its hot line began ringing non-stop after the government announced border closures to stem the coronavirus outbreak last week.

Many callers were worried about their shipments of abortion pills, which are illegal in Poland, and others feared they would not be able to reach clinics abroad in time to have the procedure, which is unavailable in Poland in most cases.

“The idea that we would have to tell a woman that because of the pandemic she won’t be able to go abroad to have an abortion, as she had been planning to, was horrifying,” Broniarczyk said.

In the first couple of days her charity, called Aborcyjny Dream Team, spoke to over a hundred women, compared to some 10 calls or fewer they take a day normally.

Staunchly Catholic Poland has some of the toughest abortion rules in Europe, with the procedure allowed only in the case of some fetal abnormalities, rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health.

Even when abortion is technically legal, some hospitals refuse to perform it, citing rules that allow doctors to refuse treatment when it contravenes their religious beliefs.

Many women seek help and treatment abroad, a solution that becomes more difficult when governments restrict travel in the hope of limiting the spread of infection.

One woman Broniarczyk said was helped by a European network of abortion activists was 20 weeks pregnant, and had wanted to abort the fetus that doctors said would die shortly after birth because of severe deformities.

She had been refused treatment in Poland and was booked into a hospital in the Netherlands.

Travel restrictions made it impossible for her to reach the Netherlands in time, so the activists helped her get to Britain via Berlin.

When she reached Berlin, Justyna Wydrzynska, who, like also works at Aborcyjny Dream Team, contacted her.

“I called her and asked how she felt,” said Wydrzynska. “She said ‘fine’, but I could hear her voice trembling.”

GOVERNMENT SAYS RESTRICTIONS NECESSARY

Asked to comment on such activities, the spokesman for the Polish Ministry of Health said: “At a time of threat from an epidemic, the most important thing is to secure the health and life of millions of Poles.

“At the core of our actions, as well as the actions of other countries, is to stop the rising number of infections.”

Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer with the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Poland, said she expected many women to fail to get assistance because of the spread of coronavirus.

“The border closures, flight cancellations, difficulties crossing borders where queues can last hours, all that will heavily weigh on women who want to terminate a pregnancy, both legally or illegally,” she said.

Just under 50% of Poles support the current rules on abortion, but the ruling Law and Justice party, a conservative grouping, has said they should be tightened further.

In Germany, next door to Poland, a Polish doctor said he worried more women would now seek “back alley” abortions.

“Women are appalled, they are desperate, and completely dependent on lawmakers who decide whether they can go abroad or not,” said Janusz Rudzinski, a gynaecologist who works in a clinic in Frost which provides abortion services to Polish women.

Reporting by Alicja Ptak; Additional reporting by Malgorzata Wojtunik and Joanna Plucinska; editing by Justyna Pawlak and Mike Collett-White

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