Polish women seeking to escape restrictive abortion laws in the predominately Roman Catholic nation come to Ukraine to terminate pregnancies. Abortion tourism is a covert phenomenon between doctors in western Ukraine and pregnant women in eastern Poland.
Abortion tourism, however, is a covert phenomenon between doctors in western Ukraine and pregnant women in eastern Poland.
Fleeing strict laws at home in the predominately Roman Catholic nation, they come to Ukraine to have an abortion.
“It’s an entire industry,” said Petro Gusak from the Lviv Institute of Family and Married Life. “There are special tourist buses that take Polish women in reproductive age across the border to see doctors.”
A pro-life activist from the Ukrainian Catholic University, he quickly searched “aborcja Lwow,” or “abortion Lviv” in Polish on the Internet to show a host of references on the subject. Together with sightseeing tours, travel agencies advertise so-called “gynecological-induced period” services in Lviv.
Poland adopted strict anti-abortion laws in the early ‘90s when the Catholic Church was at the height of its influence.
A termination of pregnancy is permitted in only three cases: when the life or health of a mother is at risk, when a growing baby is severely and irreversibly damaged or incurably ill, or when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act.
It has made a big change for Poland.During Communist times, there were up to 200,000 abortions a year. That figure has fallen to 340, states the governmental report for 2006.
It has also forced women to cross the border into Ukraine to terminate pregnancies. One of them, in an anonymous online posting, explained: “This is my body and I want an abortion. Sooner or later, abortions will be legal in Poland.” She said she had an appointment for an abortion in Lviv. “So, what can you do to me?”
Head of the Federation for Women in Warsaw, Wanda Nowicka, does not believe the official figures mean that fewer Polish women are getting abortions.
“They think that if they introduce restrictive legislation, women will have children. But it is not the case,” said Nowicka, slamming government policies. “We expect that the number of underground abortions is in the tens of thousands.” She later said the figure could be as high as 200,000.
She said that women with higher incomes travel to European Union countries. Those with little money to spare go to Ukraine and Belarus. Others buy special pills on the web to abort a pregnancy at home.
Nowicka, however, cannot produce any documented proof for Ukraine because “it’s all done under the table.”
Dr. Iryna Mykychak from the Lviv Regional Health Administration denies any backstreet abortions in her district. “We have not had a single foreign woman seeking this service recently,” she said.
Pro-life activist Gusak hit the same brick wall asking Lviv gynecologists if they have Polish clients. “They all said no,” said Gusak. “But I simply don’t believe that they won’t take extra money when they are not even breaking the Ukrainian law (which allows a termination of pregnancy up to 22 weeks).”
He said that, traditionally, women look for doctors through the grapevine. A manicurist in the nearest beauty parlor was only too happy to help. “It’s private, it’s safe, they take Polish women,” she said. “I did it myself when I was on the seventh week; it went well.”
She confidentially shared a contact number for a gynecologist from the Lviv state clinic.
This doctor took a phone call only late in the evening. He was cautious.
“I used to do it before, but not now. It’s a criminal act, you understand? Does she speak Ukrainian?” he was hesitating.
“Call me again tomorrow; I will try to help.”
Nowicka from the Women’s Federation said that women were risking their health seeking anonymous help abroad.
Under Polish law, doctors may refuse a woman an abortion for moral reasons. In this case, however, they are obliged to indicate a place where one could be done but there is no guarantee that the doctor there will give an approval. As a result, women are often subjected to successive examinations until the deadline for abortion (12 weeks) expires, and they are required to have a baby.
“This is a sign of discrimination. It shows that our society does not treat women as equal humans who can take responsibility for their life,” Nowicka said.
The problem gets worse with widespread hypocrisy towards abortion. Nowicka explained that even women who came for help to her center said that they were actually anti-abortion but needed a termination anyway.
“Anti-choice propaganda developed an internalized sense of guilt,” she said.
Pro-life activists from the Catholic University in Lviv suggested that Ukraine should follow the Polish example to reverse the population’s decline. Due to high mortality, low birth rates, and emigration there are 46 million people in Ukraine today – down from 52 million a decade ago. Gusak said that some 30 million people could have been born if it wasn’t for the liberalization of abortions in the ’50s.
Imposing the Anti-Abortion Act, Polish officials also expected the population to grow. Instead, the number of newborns has fallen by some 140,000 per year since the introduction of the ban in 1993, the state report shows.
Yet despite alarming statistics, the Polish parliament tried to outlaw abortions altogether last year. The vote failed only by a small margin.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian doctors do not deny anyone their services, performing at least 200,000 abortions for Ukrainian women and possibly another few thousand for the Polish “tourists.”