As the rule of law crisis between Warsaw and Brussels escalates, activists say the abortion ban imposed by a politicised court just a year ago offers a painful example of how the collapse of judicial independence affects peoples' lives.
It has been a year since Poland's Constitutional Tribunal further tightened what was already one of the most restrictive abortion legislation in Europe.
On October 22, 2020, the court ruled it was unconstitutional for women to terminate their pregnancies even in cases of severe and irreversible foetal defects, leading to a near-total ban on abortion in the mostly Roman Catholic country.
"What happened last year was basically an example of what happens if a political power destroys the rule of law and destroys judicial independence," said Marta Lempart, the co-founder of the Polish Women’s Strike movement, insisting that the ban on abortion came from an "illegitimate" and "politicised" tribunal.
A prominent voice in the country, Lempart has been the target of repeated death threats for leading demonstrations in favour of abortion, which have been the country's biggest protests in its post-communist era.
The campaigner also faces 81 legal cases against her, some brought by authorities because of her role in the protests and her criticism of the government, others by ultra-conservative religious organisations.
Like fellow women's rights defenders, Lempart has not backed down in the face of harassment and continues to fight for reproductive freedom in the country.
But on the abortion ban's first anniversary, activists say they cannot win this fight alone and need help from the European Union to restore the rule of law in the country.
The same Constitutional Tribunal that curtailed abortion rights ruled earlier this month that Polish law reigned supreme over EU legislation in a move that has been described as a "nuclear strike" on the bloc's legal order.
It came after rulings by the European Court of Justice said Poland’s new regulations for appointing judges breached EU laws and the principles of judicial independence.
What has been the impact of the ruling on Polish women?
"Women, girls, and all pregnant people have faced extreme barriers to accessing legal abortions in the year since a Constitutional Tribunal ruling virtually banned legal abortion in Poland," 14 human rights organisations said in a statement on Tuesday.
Until the October 2020 ruling, over 90% of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions annually in Poland were conducted on the grounds of severe and irreversible foetal defects, according to the human rights groups.
Members of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party have argued the new rules were a way to prevent the abortion of foetuses with Down syndrome, which have made up a significant share of the legal abortions in Poland.
The ruling entered into force in January. Since then, the only exceptions to the ban on abortion have been in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's health is in danger.
“The Constitutional Tribunal ruling is causing incalculable harm to women and girls – especially those who are poor, live in rural areas, or are marginalised,” said Urszula Grycuk, international advocacy coordinator at the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) in Poland. “The dignity, freedom and health of pregnant people are compromised because their own government is denying them access to essential reproductive health care.”
Despite the ban, organisations supporting reproductive rights have never been so busy.
Federa said it conducted about 8,100 consultations in the 11 months after the ruling -- a three-fold increase compared to previous years. Abortion Without Borders, a group helping women in countries where abortion is illegal or highly restricted, reported that it helped 34,000 people from Poland to access abortion over the past year.
"We're having much more work than ever before," Grycuk told Euronews. "People don't know what is legal anymore, what they can do or not."
"When it comes to abortions abroad and medical abortions, we provide information about where to go and who to contact. Our organisation acts within the law, even though we are already in a grey area providing this information and we never know when we will have a problem because anyway, we are harassed as a human rights organisation," she said.
When the pregnancy is detected at an early stage, women have the option of ordering abortion pills from organisations abroad and take them at home. Another option is to seek abortion abroad, but the costs are often very high.
"There are organisations that provide financial support in accessing abortion so people who manage to reach them can have their costs covered. The rest are left without any State assistance which results in leaving the most marginalised members of the society without any help, which should have been the duty of the State," Grycuk said.
"We are also trying to forge a path for women to be able to access abortion on the grounds of mental health problems because there are, this is not an exaggeration, women who tell us on the phone: 'if I don't get help, I'll kill myself.' So we are trying in those cases where mental health is severely at risk to direct women to psychiatrists who can issue certificates on the necessity to access abortion on the ground of threat to the pregnant person’s life and health" Grycuk told Euronews.
"At the same time, we never know when those doctors can be checked," she added, noting the ruling had a "chilling effect" on medical professionals. Doctors who carry out abortions face up to 3 years in prison.
Grycuk told Euronews that another unintended consequence of the ban is that fewer women are getting prenatal testing "because they know that they cannot do anything anyway and a woman has to carry the pregnancy until the end no matter what."
But Lempart says one positive consequence of the new abortion rules and the backlash that followed is that it has raised people's awareness of where to look for abortion. "Before people didn't know where to look, where to get help, how to arrange an abortion. Now the barrier has been broken. Everybody knows the number of the national abortion helpline."
What are the prospects of reversing the ban?
"One year on, the major thing that we're doing is collecting signatures to legalise abortion in Poland. This is the core thing that we're doing now," Lempart told Euronews. "We have to collect 100,000 signatures and then you can expect at some point for the parliament to actually legalise abortion in Poland."
The civic initiative bill, known as “Legal Abortion Without Compromise,” would permit abortion on demand up to the twelfth week of pregnancy and even beyond in certain cases, including pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.
"We talk about it to the people on the streets and it's changing the narrative around abortion," Lempart said.
"We all know someone who's had an abortion. So pretending that the ban on abortion means no abortions is a lie that we can leave to the Church and the right-wing. We can tell the truth and people are actually into that more than talking about human rights or women's rights."
The activist expressed confidence that the ban would be reversed in the future, noting that opinion polls showed a majority of Poles were against the current near-total ban on abortion. A survey conducted last year found that over 70% of Poles were opposed to the Constitutional Tribunal ruling.
Meanwhile, ultra-religious groups have also launched new civic initiatives to further tighten abortion rules. Under the proposal, women getting an abortion and anyone assisting them would face a prison sentence of up to 25 years.
What's the price paid by women's rights defenders?
Human rights groups say women activists have faced escalating threats and repression since the ruling.
"All of us at the Federation have been receiving emails for some time containing death threats," said Grycuk. "One email had our picture with a target on it." While the organisation reported the threats to police, perpetrators were never identified and the investigation was eventually discontinued.
One day, the activist also found an inscription on her office door saying 'children are murdered here.'
"We are an object of this ongoing propaganda coming from the government, because 'we are the bad ones,' 'we are against life.' We are not representing the government agenda and now we are also quite vocally speaking against them--even though we are exercising the basic duty that the State should fulfil which is protecting the life and health of its citizens," Grycuk told Euronews.
"We're getting beaten up by the police at the demonstrations. We are being persecuted. We are being detained illegally. It's happening and nobody is facing consequences," Lempart said.
The Polish Women Strike leader told Euronews that a man suspected of being behind the death threats she received had been arrested by police. According to her, what prompted authorities to act was that the profile of the suspect was very similar to the murderer of the mayor of Gdansk, Paweł Adamowicz, who was stabbed to death in January 2019.
Lempart claims that propaganda relayed by pro-government media has contributed to her insecurity.
"When I had COVID, the public television knew it before me. They got information from the health care system first, before I knew the results and then made a one hour and a half special with experts basically claiming that it was my own fault."
The European Union has repeatedly expressed concerns over media freedom in Poland in recent months.
Since 2015, Poland has also dropped from 18th to 64th place on the World Media Freedom Index.
Euronews reached out to the Polish government for comments on the first anniversary of the ruling but did not get a reply at the time of publication.
What can the EU do?
As rights defenders continue to fight the abortion battle, they say they also need help from the European Union.
“Women’s rights are on a precipice in Poland, and unless the European Commission and Council act to defend democratic values, more and more women and girls will suffer the consequences," said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
In their statement on Tuesday, the 14 human rights groups urged the European Commission to use the tools at its disposal to uphold the rule of law in Poland, such as legal infringement proceedings or a newly adopted mechanism tying access to EU funds to respect for EU values.
"Since values do not speak to the Polish authorities, please talk money to them so block funds, and if possible redirect the funds where they could serve the values the EU stands for, by supporting civil society financially," said Grycuk.
The European Parliament voted on Thursday for a new resolution condemning the Polish abortion ruling of last year and linking it to the rule of law crisis.
The resolution "underlines the illegitimacy of the ruling of 22 October 2020 (K 1/20) and recognises that these severe restrictions on women’s reproductive health and rights are unlawful."
Poland and the rule of law will also feature prominently on the agenda of the EU summit taking place on Thursday and Friday but it remains to be seen whether the bloc's leaders will take any concrete action.
"We hope that there will be a firm commitment from the Council," Irene Donadio, Senior Lead, Strategy and Partnership at International Planned Parenthood Federation-European Network (IPPF-EN) told Euronews. But she noted that certain EU governments were currently placing emphasis on "dialogue" with Poland over sanctions.
"We really hope that the struggle that women and women rights' defenders are facing in Poland will be reflected and that there will be decisions that bring hope to Polish citizens," she said.
Every weekday, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It's available on Apple and Android devices.