Ms. Magazine

spring 2003
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this is what a feminist looks like

Features
The Feminist To-Do List by Gloria Steinem
Ms. Poll Feminist Tide Sweeps In as the 21st Century Begins by Lorraine Dusky
Affirmative Action on Trial by Teresa Stern
Women on Death Row by Claudia Dreifus
In the Thick of Life at 70 by Jessica Chornesky

Special Action Alert
Women Take Action Worldwide
Listing: Coalitions and Groups
National Council of Women's Organizations Statement on War with Iraq
NCWO Partial Members List
Why Peace is (More Than Ever) a Feminist Issue
by Grace Paley

Writing of War and Its Consequences
Ghosts of Home by Patricia Sarrafian Ward
Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood by Marjane Satrapi
Snow in Summer: LA, CA, 1963 by Helen Zelon

News
Pat Summitt's 800th Victory
Augusta Golf Club's Red Face
National Map of Priest Abuse
Women Warriors
Lesbians with Strollers
Kopp Trial
Trouble in Herat, Afghanistan
Reproductive Rights in Poland
Health Clinics in Guatemala
Congolese Women for Peace
Global Good News Round-Up
The Opposite of a Nuclear Bomb

Departments
Lower Breast Cancer Risks by Liz Galst
The Making of an Activist by Gloria Feldt
Nature Conservancy Gains by Rachel Rabkin
Harvard Stumbles on Rape Rules by Lorraine Dusky
The Bush Overhaul of Federal Courts by Stephanie B. Goldberg
My Friend Yeshi by Alice Walker

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Peggy Simpson recent reutnred to Washington DC from Warsaw, where she spent a decade reporting on the economic and political transitions in Central East Europe.


New Urgency to Fight for Reproductive Rights
Women rally to challenge tough law before Poland enters the European Union

By Peggy Simpson

Political hypocrisy is alive and well in Poland. In the last election, the governing Democratic Left Alliance, or SLD (ex-communists), had won votes over the Solidarity parties by promising to liberalize Poland’s abortion law, the strictest in Europe along with Ireland’s. The SLD reneged on that promise in January in order to curry favor with
My Life, My Choice. Young feminists demonstrate in front of Copernicus monument. Photo by Janek Skarzynski/AFP.

Catholic bishops who they feared could derail Poland’s upcoming entry into the European Union.

President Aleksander Kwasniewski takes the cake. He favored expanding the 1993 law beyond current exceptions for rape, incest, fetal deformities, or the health of the mother. Now he says the law isn’t that bad—especially when Poland’s birth rate is so low. “Can you believe it? He knows the abortion law has nothing to do with this,” says Wanda Nowicka, head of the Polish Federation of Women and Family Planning, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in January.

Under communism, women had little or no access to contraceptives (or tampons or anesthesia during childbirth). Abortion was not just available; it was broadly used as a means of birth control.

The Solidarity anti-communist movement wrested power from the communists in 1989 but, while its reformers freed up the economic and political systems, they restricted options for women. They granted payback demands from the Catholic Church (which had provided sanctuary for Solidarity dissidents when communists banned the movement in 1981) to curtail access to both abortion and divorce, return nuns and priests to public schools and then, in 1993, enact the near-total ban on abortion with prison penalties for doctors who helped women get illegal abortions.

With nearly 11 million women of childbearing age, a thriving black-market abortion industry has sprung up. Doctors charge an average of $500 for an underground abortion-- more than a month's wages for doctors at state hospitals. Ironically, the opportunity for doctors to earn this significant salary supplement appears to be one reason women eligible for legal abortions get the runaround in state hospitals.

At the least, says Wanda Nowicka, the government should "document the real effect of the law," which is far more restrictive in practice (only 124 legal abortions were reported in 2001) than the law requires, with women clearly eligible for legal abortions ordered to take one unwarranted test after another until time has run out. "If the SLD had the political will to do anything, they could demonstrate it with a stronger policy on contraception and on sex education," says Nowicka.

The good news is that the media is paying attention to these SLD-church collisions on abortion issues, amplifying arguments by Nowicka, parliamentary deputy Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, who heads the government's office on women's rights, and feminist author Agnieszka Graff. This includes their outcry in January when the SLD caved in to church demands and issued a written statement expressing its understanding that "no EU treaties ... would hamper the Polish government in regulating moral issues or those concerning the protection of human life."

More young women are paying attention as well, swelling the ranks of women's studies classes, joining in protest letters to politicians, and showing up at street demonstrations, including an annual "manifa" that takes place every International Women's Day. Last year's slogans included, "Yes for rights to abortion, rights to contraception." This year's
Demonstration on March 8 will be closely watched by both the bishops and SLD politicians to assess the clout of the women’s rights groups.


Flash Fact

Only 124 legal abortions were reported in Poland in 2001. Estimates of illegal abortions range from 80,000 to 200,000.

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009