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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Abortion ship makes waves in Poland
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Anti-abortion protesters hold a small symbolic coffin with the name of the Langenort abortion-right ship
The issue has divided Catholic Poland
The women who disembark from the floating abortion clinic risk being splattered with eggs and red paint by a small but aggressive group of ultra-conservative protesters gathered on the quayside in the Polish port of Wladyslawowo.

But in staunchly Roman Catholic Poland, home to Pope John Paul II and one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws, it is a price these women are willing to pay.

The ship, whose trip to Poland has been organised by the Dutch-based campaign group Women on Waves, provides a rare opportunity for Polish women to gain free family planning advice and abortions without turning to the back streets or going abroad.

Services provided
In port:
Pregnancy tests
General info
Non-surgical abortions
Condemned as a "murderous" enterprise by conservative politicians and hailed as a symbol of hope by women's rights activists, the continuing presence of the boat has unleashed a fierce debate across Poland, dividing the country straight down the middle.

"This is exactly what we wanted," says Wanda Nowicka, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning, which invited the boat to visit Poland.

"We want the country to sit up and think about this issue and the consequences of denying women the right to abortion."

Expensive operation

Like most of the former communist states, Poland provided abortion virtually on demand during the Soviet era, when women in Eastern Europe lived under a system of formal equality imposed by the state.

After communism collapsed, many countries experienced a backlash against anything representative of the old order. Liberal abortion laws were one of the first casualties, with some restrictions introduced in most countries.

Neighbouring laws
Bulgaria: Abortion up to 12 weeks
Czech Republic: On demand
Estonia: Up to 12 weeks
Hungary: Up to 12 weeks
Latvia: Reason must be given
Lithuania: On demand
Romania: On demand
Slovakia: On demand
Slovenia: On demand

But no country went as far as Poland.

Here, the Catholic Church, which had stood as a symbol of opposition under communism, rode high on a wave of popularity in the early 1990s and managed to push its aggressively anti-abortion, anti-contraception stance onto the mainstream political agenda.

A 1993 law sponsored by the Church stipulated that a pregnancy could only be terminated to protect the mother's life, when the foetus was irreparably damaged, or if it were the result of rape or incest.

Many women have complained that even in circumstances where they meet the criteria, doctors have refused them the procedure.

Consequently, the number of legal abortions has tumbled from about 180,000 per year under communism to around 150 per year currently.

Women's groups say that the net result of the ban has not been to drastically cut the number of abortions Polish women undergo, but merely to push the practice underground.

They say that between 60,000 to 200,000 Polish women opt for a termination each year, either by paying a doctor to perform an illegal abortion at home, or by travelling to neighbouring countries where abortion is legal.

This would be a similar proportion to the number of women from Ireland, which also has restrictive laws, who travel to the neighbouring UK each year for abortions.

The estimate is, however, denied by Polish pro-life groups, who insist Polish women do not want abortions.

These figures simply are not true
Lech Kowalewski
Human Life International

While the number of women seeking illegal terminations each year is disputed, there is little doubt that those who do face a huge expense.

A Polish doctor - who risks prosecution if he or she is discovered - charges between $500 and $1,000 for each operation.

This is the equivalent of a month's wages or more for those women who have a job. In a country where unemployment sticks doggedly at the 20% mark, many have no work, making the sum even more daunting.

Catholic aid

During the campaign for the 2001 general election, the now-ruling Democratic Left Alliance - a democratic offspring of the communist party - promised to liberalise abortion should it enter the government.

But, weak and unpopular, it has had to rely on the support of the Roman Catholic Church to whip up support for issues such as EU membership - on which Poland held a referendum in June.

Pople John Paul II
The Church still wields considerable power in Poland
The church offered its backing on condition that the existing abortion law remained in place.

The government has submitted to the church, but with an eye to its election promise pointed vaguely to possible reform after the next elections of 2005.

But dogged by sleaze allegations and high unemployment, there are few guarantees at present that the party will be re-elected.

In addition the President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, says he sees no reason to change the abortion law.

"We're not worried," says Lech Kowalewski of anti-abortion group Human Life International, which wants to see abortion in Poland outlawed in cases of rape as well.

"The ship may give the abortionists some publicity, but that's as far as it goes. No government will dare to touch the law for the time being."

Women's group do not disagree.

"About half the population want the law liberalised but there is a real lack of representation of people by their politicians, many of whom are under the influence of the Church or afraid of the Church," says campaigner Slawka Walzewska.

"The debate around the ship has been extremely helpful, and I believe there will be change, but it will probably happen in very small steps."

At least for the foreseeable future therefore, the only options available to Polish women remain illegal operations at home, travel abroad, and - for the short-term - the services provided by a floating clinic.

But on Saturday that too will sail away.

No abortions on 'abortion ship'
15 Jun 01  |  Europe
Europe's terms for terminations
02 Jun 02  |  Europe

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