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Wednesday, 3 October, 2001, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Poland set for abortion battle
Leader of the Democratic Left Alliance Leszek Miller celebrates victory
The SLD victory could lead to battles over abortion
By Ray Furlong in Warsaw

As negotiations continue in Poland over the formation of a new government after last month's elections, preparations are under way for a political battle over the future of the country's abortion laws.

Poland has some of the strictest anti-abortion legislation in Europe and it has been the subject of intense debate ever since the fall of communism.

It is not just the letter of the law which is at issue - but the practices of Polish hospitals.

Bozena Kleczkowska and her husband are childless, and last year at the age of 44 she became pregnant.

She was delighted, but then things turned sour.

Abortion demonstration 1992
Changes to abortion laws after the fall of communism raised strong feelings
"I had pre-natal tests. Unfortunately the results showed my foetus had Downs Syndrome. It was a tragedy for me and my husband. I decided to ask for an abortion, it was my right," she explains.

But Bozena's rights were soon in question.

The hospital wanted more documentation before doctors would operate. When she provided it, it asked for more still.

Then doctors tried to persuade her not to have an abortion on ethical grounds. Eventually, she was discharged without getting the abortion.

"I was in very bad, very bad shape. As soon as I left the hospital I started to look for another one, and with the same documents in another state hospital they took me and performed the operation at once," Bozena says.

This discussion about abortion over the last 10 years in Poland, has changed people's mentality; people care more about life

Father Adam Schulz
Pro-choice activists in Poland say her case is not unique.

Polish law allows for abortions in a number of cases: in life-threatening situations, when there is foetal deformation, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape.

But in practice, hospitals often refuse to carry out abortions under any circumstances.

"We had the case of a woman who was HIV positive and we wrote to 12 hospitals. Eight hospitals said they would not carry out the abortion because HIV is not a sufficient condition for them," says Wanda Nowicka of the Federation for Women and Family Planning.

The federation is now taking legal action against several hospitals that, it alleges, illegally refused to carry out abortions.

Pope John Paul II
The influence of the church has led to some of the tightest laws in Europe
But it faces powerful opponents.

Poland adopted strict anti-abortion laws in the early 1990s, when the Catholic Church and the Solidarity movement were at the height of their influence.

It has been a major change for Poles.

During the communist era, there were about 180,000 legal abortions every year. That figure has now fallen to about 150.

"This discussion about abortion over the last 10 years in Poland, has changed people's mentality. People care more about life," says Father Adam Schulz, spokesman for the Polish Bishops' Conference.

Illegal abortion is widely available in the so-called abortion underground

Wanda Nowicka
But the pro-choice lobby says this change in attitudes is just a facade.

"Illegal abortion is widely available in the so-called abortion underground and it's carried out basically by medical doctors - many of those who in hospitals do not perform abortions but in private clinics they do so for a huge amount of money," says Mrs Nowicka, who believes tens of thousands of illegal abortions are carried out in Poland every year.

She hopes times may now be about to change following the victory of the Democratic Left Party in the recent elections.

The party, made up of former communists, favours relaxing rules on abortions.

But the Democratic Left now faces tough negotiations on forming a government, resolving a budget crisis, and entry to the European Union.

Critics warn the party has never made the abortion law a priority, and may sacrifice it in exchange for compromises on other issues.

See also:

27 Sep 01 | Europe
The rise of Poland's new radicals
24 Sep 01 | Europe
Goodbye Solidarity
24 Sep 01 | Europe
Left victorious in Poland
15 Jun 01 | Europe
No abortions on 'abortion ship'
12 Feb 01 | Europe
Timeline: Poland
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Poland
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