POLAND – Abortion witchhunt targets women and doctors

by Human Rights Watch Poland

Poland’s government is targeting people for alleged abortion-related activities, intensifying a climate of fear that heightens risks for women and girls… Since the near-ban on legal abortion in 2020, Polish officials have increasingly opened investigations on questionable legal grounds against women and girls seeking medical care for miscarriages or after legal medical abortions, as well as against doctors. Polish law does not criminalise having an abortion but does criminalise anyone who provides or assists someone in having an abortion outside of highly restricted grounds. The government is apparently attempting to find a basis for prosecuting family members, friends, and healthcare providers for illegally providing or assisting abortions.

“This… can only be described as a witch hunt,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government is misusing police and courts to advance its anti-rights agenda, taking its abusive policies into private homes, hospital rooms, and doctors’ offices.”

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, doctors, lawyers, and a woman who had a legal medical abortion described sweeping and speculative investigations, and overbroad searches. Criminalising those who provide or assist an abortion unjustifiably interferes with the right to health, leading to negative health outcomes and potential persecution of those seeking abortion.

Since January 2021, at least six women are known to have died after doctors did not terminate their pregnancies despite complications that posed a danger to their health or lives, which remain legal grounds for abortion in Poland. Prosecutors opened investigations into all six cases, five of which are ongoing. In the sixth, the prosecutor discontinued the proceedings without providing reasons for doing so.

Women and girls have been put under intense scrutiny for alleged abortion-related activity when they seek urgent health care. Joanna, a 32-year-old woman, said that the police demanded to strip search her in April after she had a self-administered medical abortion, which is legal. Two weeks later, she called her psychiatrist for help with symptoms of severe anxiety. During the call, she disclosed her abortion to her psychiatrist, who called an ambulance and contacted the police. Police arrived at Joanna’s apartment alongside a paramedic and escorted her to two different hospitals. At the second one, she was ordered to undress for what amounted to a body cavity search. “They told me to take off my clothes, do squats, and cough,” Joanna said. “I was just standing in front of them, I didn’t take my underwear off…. I tried to take a step back but there was only a wall behind me. I felt I wasn’t a human being anymore.”

The lawyer representing Joanna and others subject to invasive searches and interrogation said that such “fishing expeditions” do not have sufficient legal basis. “This is just searching for searching’s sake,” the lawyer said. “It’s not legitimate because the investigation must not be started without grounds for suspicion…. Only for abortion is it done this way.” These actions also constitute degrading treatment in violation of international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said….

Since the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) came to power in 2015, Poland’s government has carried out a sustained attack on sexual and reproductive health rights, particularly access to abortion. The ruling party brought the abortion case to the Constitutional Tribunal after parliament voted not to adopt legislation effectively banning legal abortion.

The authorities’ crackdown on women’s rights is a symptom of their broader capture of the justice system and dismantling of democratic checks and balances. Under Law and Justice, the government has systematically eroded the rule of law by undermining the independence of the judiciary and establishing effective control over the Constitutional Tribunal, among other institutions. It has sought to silence independent civil society groups, activists, and those who protest against its policies, including through the police and courts.

These attacks… raise serious concerns over breaches of the European Union’s founding values and Poland’s international human rights obligations. “By going after women and girls who need medical care – and doctors who provide it – Polish authorities are using their powers to terrorise people instead of to protect basic rights,” Hilary Margolis said. “As the government ramps up its targeting and harassment of people allegedly linked to abortion, anyone can fall prey to these attempts and have their privacy, dignity, and right to health violated.”

Some disturbing individual experiences

This article goes on to report the following: Between April and September, Human Rights Watch interviewed a woman who was interrogated by police after having a medication abortion, and two gynecologists who said they were targeted for allegedly providing or supporting the right to abortion care. Human Rights Watch also interviewed a lawyer who represented a 17-year-old girl interrogated by police after she took medication abortion pills, and a lawyer representing two women interrogated by police: one after having a medication abortion and one following a miscarriage. In all three cases, police also searched the women’s and girls’ homes and seized belongings including their telephones. Polish media have reported other cases similar to the ones experienced by or within the direct knowledge of the individuals Human Rights Watch interviewed.

Joanna, the 32-year-old woman who had a legal, self-administered medical abortion at home in Krakow in April 2023, later contacted her psychiatrist over what she felt were anxiety attacks. She told the psychiatrist she was not going to harm herself. Yet a paramedic arrived at her door accompanied by police, whom the psychiatrist had contacted. Two male officers searched her apartment and asked for her phone, saying “it might be evidence in a crime” without specifying what crime.

In the ambulance, the police prevented her from using her phone to inform her sister of her whereabouts. “At that point, I realized that something was going wrong,” Joanna said. “I knew I wasn’t breaking the law in how I got the [abortion] pills, but it didn’t matter.” The police escorted her to a hospital, where they and two additional police officers surrounded her in an examination area. Later, at a second hospital, two female police officers entered the room where a gynecologist had examined Joanna. They ordered her to strip naked, squat, and cough, without providing a reason. Joanna refused. “They were just repeating, ‘take off your clothes, do squats, cough,’” she said. She removed her shirt and bra but not her underwear. She described feeling like a trapped animal. “I tried to take a step back but there was only a wall behind me. I felt I wasn’t a human being anymore. I didn’t want to take my panties off because I was wearing a [sanitary] pad and it was dirty. It was too humiliating. Something caused me to scream: ‘What do you want from me?!’”

Joanna said she gave officers her cell phone to prevent them from searching her physically, which she felt “would break me”. While at the hospital, she realized her laptop had been confiscated. A few weeks later, police called her to give a statement, but did not inform her who or what was under investigation…. Joanna is being represented by the Warsaw-based FEDERA: Foundation for Women and Family Planning… [The article continues with further case histories.]

PLEASE SHARE: Human Rights Watch has published a short report + video highlighting how Poland’s government is increasingly targeting people – including women and girls seeking health care – in an effort to find anyone they can prosecute for abortion-related activity. They would be very grateful for your willingness to share it widely, especially in Polish! The short report is here in English, and here in Polish. The video is in English here and in Polish here and is linked to each report.

SOURCE: Human Rights Watch Poland News, 14 September 2023.