Allies or Opponents? How to Convince Doctors to Support Reproductive and Sexual Rights in Poland?

In January 2016, STER Foundation started a new two-years project related to the question of reproductive health and rights.

The main objective of the project “Allies or Opponents? How to Convince Doctors to Support Reproductive and Sexual Rights in Poland?” is to identify conditions under which medical community in Poland will be willing to support attempts to liberalize anti-abortion law, access to contraception and sexual education.

Since 1993 abortion law in Poland has been one of the most restrictive in Europe. Abortion is obtainable in only three legal cases (1. when pregnancy constitutes a threat to woman’s health or life; 2. when the fetus is damaged, and finally 3. when the pregnancy is a result of criminal offence, e.g. incest, or rape). Criminalization of abortion on social and economic grounds forces women to seek clandestine in Poland or to seek rescue abroad. Moreover, the restrictive anti-abortion legislation has a chilling effect on access to lawful abortion. Medical doctors refuse to perform abortion even in cases permitted by law, as they are afraid of being punished on the grounds of criminal law. Many physicians refer to “conscientious objective clause” and refuse to provide certain services – not only legal abortions; they also refuse to prescribe emergency and new generation contraceptives. The situation regarding reproductive and sexual rights in Poland has been criticized by a number of human rights institutions such as Human Rights Committee (1999, 2004, 2010), CEDAW Committee (2007, 2014), Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1998, 2002, 2009). Poland lost three cases in the European Court of Human Rights (cases of Alicja Tysiac vs. Poland, 2006; R.R. vs. Poland, 2011; P. and S. vs. Poland, 2012). Despite this situation, conservative and right-wing forces constantly push for even more restrictive abortion regulations.

Contrary to the situation in other countries, where anti-abortion law was liberalized, with the support of the doctors’ community (for instance in France in 1972 or in Spain in 2010), Polish physicians remain reluctant to any liberalization attempts, even though clandestine is reality. Left unanswered is a question of unexpected change of the attitudes of Polish doctors towards abortion after 1989 as well as their reluctance to support changes in the field of reproductive and sexual rights in Poland. It is the reason why we decided to carry out the project which would be targeted to the medical community.

The main objective of the project is twofold. Firstly, we would like to identify barriers and obstacles which prevent Polish doctors, especially gynecologists from supporting liberal changes in the field of reproductive rights. Secondly, we would like to know factors which would enable Polish doctors to advocate for liberalization of anti-abortion legislation, and in a broader perspective, to adopt more liberal attitude towards reproductive rights, contraception and sexual education.

In-depth interviews with Polish doctors are the first part of the project which is aimed at encouraging medical community in Poland to engage in undertaking liberalization initiatives in the field of reproductive rights. Drawing from the experiences of other countries – such as Ireland and Spain – where socio-cultural context is similar to Poland, we want to test a number of factors on the possibility of such developments in our country.

The research will be conducted in 2016. They will serve as a basis for developing strategy of advocating for liberalization of legislation in the field of reproductive health and rights. Building collaboration with medical community in Poland will be one of the project objectives.

This project is supported by the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with Human Rights Initiative of the Open Society Foundations.