A group of women's rights activists with a sign reading "Abortion Without Borders" protesting Poland's strict anti-abortion law, outside the top constitutional court, in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

Poland’s ‘pregnancy registry’ will further restrict abortion access, activists say

The Polish government says it is establishing a national medical database, following a directive from the EU Commission, promising to ensure the protection of people's privacy. But in a country with a near-total abortion ban, rights activists are not so convinced.

The World

A group of women's rights activists with a sign reading "Abortion Without Borders" protesting Poland's strict anti-abortion law, outside the top constitutional court, in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

When 27-year-old Klaudia Kuzdub discovered she was pregnant in March 2021, she said she couldn’t contemplate the idea of having a baby at the time.

“I thought, ‘I am not ready. I don't want it.’ It wasn't planned at all, so I didn't know what to do,” said Kuzdub, who comes from the small city of Kielce, in southern Poland. 

Two months prior, the Polish government had outlawed abortion in all but the most exceptional of circumstances — if the health or life of the pregnant person is at risk, as well as in cases of rape or incest.

And recently, the government also announced plans to establish a database listing all pregnant people in Poland, sparking concern among abortion rights activists in the country that the registry would make it harder than ever to access a safe abortion.

Related: This Polish activist sent abortion pills to a woman in need. Now she's on trial.

In Kuzdub’s situation, she immediately contacted Abortion Dream Team, a Poland-based abortion support group, which then directed her to an international women’s group abroad. They offered to send her abortion pills through the mail.

Ten days later, the medication arrived and Kuzdub ingested it, but she went to her local hospital to have a scan when she became worried that it hadn’t worked. The doctor became agitated when she found out the reason for Kuzdub's visit.

“She [the doctor] became really, really angry. She didn't ask me how I was feeling, what symptoms I had, nothing. ... The only question the doctor kept asking was, ‘Where did you get the pills? This is illegal.’”

Klaudia Kuzdub, 27, Poland
Klaudia Kuzdub, 27, shared her abortion story with the media after a harrowing experience.

Klaudia Kuzdub, 27, shared her abortion story with the media after a harrowing experience. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Klaudia Kuzdub

“She [the doctor] became really, really angry. She didn't ask me how I was feeling, what symptoms I had, nothing,” Kuzdub said. 

“The only question the doctor kept asking was, ‘Where did you get the pills? This is illegal.’” 

The doctor threatened to call the police and the hospital’s lawyer.

Terrified, Kuzdub left the hospital, going against the doctor's recommendation to stay for testing, because she feared that the doctor would alert authorities. 

Abortion rights campaigners worry that Poland’s new “pregnancy register” will increase incidents like this. 

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It is not a criminal offence for a woman to have an abortion in Poland but assisting someone to have an abortion is punishable by law unless it's carried out under exceptional circumstances.

Abortion rights activists are concerned that having a database means the state could feasibly keep tabs on people who are pregnant and investigate if that pregnancy suddenly ends.

Doctors are not obliged to report abortions to the police, but abortion rights activists predict that that’s what will happen. 

The Polish government says the central medical database will also include details like blood type and allergies.

Health Ministry spokesperson Wojciech Andrusiewicz said on Polish TV last week that the database was being established following a recommendation from the European Union. 

In May, the EU Commission proposed a scheme to digitize medical records across the bloc. But the commission stated that patients should be able to control who has access to their files, and the plan remains at the proposal stage.

Andrusiewicz argued that the system will benefit Polish citizens traveling abroad, because doctors in other EU countries would be able to access their records in cases of medical emergencies. He said that only doctors would have access to the data.

But many women’s rights campaigners in Poland don’t trust medical professionals to keep the data private.

Marta Lempart, leader of the movement Polish Women’s Strike, has reason to be suspicious. Lempart took a COVID-19 test in December 2020 using Poland’s national health care service. Her positive test result was revealed on national TV, even before she had received the results herself, she said.

Lempart is a well-known figure in Poland and one of the key organizers of some of the biggest protest rallies against the country’s abortion laws in recent years. She pointed out that she has had numerous run-ins with Poland’s right-wing government and most of the country’s TV stations are state-controlled.

Related: Near-total abortion ban takes effect in Poland amid protests

Marta Lempart, a leader of Polish Women's Strike, uses a megaphone to address protesters who gathered for a protest, on International Women's Day in Warsaw, Poland, Monday March 8, 2021. 

Marta Lempart, a leader of Polish Women's Strike, uses a megaphone to address protesters who gathered for a protest, on International Women's Day in Warsaw, Poland, Monday March 8, 2021. 

Credit:

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Activists are also concerned that people who have miscarried could also become targets of police investigations.

Lempart said there is already a dearth of psychological support for those who’ve had a miscarriage. Fearing a potential police investigation will only add to the trauma, she said.

“So, in this horrible state, she might be questioned, harassed, abused, treated as a suspect, I cannot even imagine,” Lempart said. 

The new abortion laws came into force in January 2021.

Since then, there have been a handful of cases of women who have died after doctors refused to carry out a termination. 

Izabela Sajbor, from Pszczyna, in southern Poland, was admitted to the hospital when she was 22 weeks pregnant. Doctors had already told Sajbor that the fetus had severe abnormalities and would almost certainly die in the womb. Her water broke prematurely and she knew she was at high risk of sepsis if the fetus was not removed.

But doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy.

By the time the baby’s heartbeat stopped, Sajbor was already in critical condition. "Because of the abortion laws, the doctors can do nothing," Sajbor told her mother in a text message. 

Less than 24 hours later, she died of septic shock.

Doctors are said to be afraid of carrying out an abortion since there is no definitive answer as to what constitutes a threat to a pregnant person’s health or life.

But Lempart has little sympathy for the medical professionals.

“I don't care what their explanation is. I don't care. Women die,” she said.

Only one in 10 Poles are reported to be in favor of the restrictive abortion laws.

Lempart said no Polish doctor has been charged or put in jail for carrying out an abortion in the last 30 years. She said she believes doctors are refusing to terminate pregnancies to protect their careers rather than fear of imprisonment.

Lempart herself is facing numerous charges and court trials in relation to her activism.

“I have about 100 trials, charges, investigations pending,” she said.

The charges include insulting a police officer, breaking anti-COVID-19 regulations, illegal occupation of a traffic lane and littering. Lempart said one of the charges could see her facing an eight-year jail term. But she refuses to be intimidated or silenced.

A month after Kuzdub walked out of the hospital in Kielce, the police turned up at her grandparents’ house looking for her.

They said they wanted to talk with her about what had happened at the hospital. But when Kuzdub went to the station for the meeting, there was no mention of the hospital visit.

“They were asking me only who gave me the abortion pills and who knew about the abortion. That's all. They never asked me about the situation in the hospital at all,” she said. 

Kuzdub doesn’t know why the police decided to investigate her case.

A few days after she left the hospital, she told her story anonymously on YouTube. 

The video went viral and Kuzdub said a couple of Catholic newspapers later reported her story and identified her. 

She has since spoken to Polish media widely about what happened. 

Kuzdub said she doesn’t know if the police investigation stems from a call from the hospital or following pressure from the state following her media exposure.

The police did not say if they were investigating her case any further, she said, but Kuzdub plans to leave Poland soon and move to Italy. 

It’s a Catholic country, too, she said, but in Italy, nobody terrorizes you for terminating a pregnancy.