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Women in Poland are currently facing an ‘abortion witch hunt’, Human Rights Watch has claimed. The NGO has claimed the Polish government is targeting people for alleged abortion-related activities and has intensified a ‘climate of fear’ that heightens risks for women and girls.

In 2020, an almost complete ban on abortion was introduced in Poland. Polish law does not criminalise having an abortion but instead criminalises anyone who provides or assists someone in having an abortion outside of highly restricted grounds.

Since the change to the law, Polish officials have increasingly opened investigations on questionable legal grounds against people seeking medical care for miscarriages or after legal medical abortions, as well as against doctors. NGOs claim the government is apparently attempting to find a basis for prosecuting family members, friends, and healthcare providers for illegally providing or assisting abortions.

“Polish authorities’ ruthless pursuit of people trying to get or provide basic health care can only be described as a witch hunt,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.  She added: “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 medication abortion described sweeping and speculative investigations, and overbroad searches. Campaigners say that 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.

Additionally, 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.

Evidence consistently demonstrates that laws criminalising or restricting access to abortion do not eliminate it, but rather drive people to seek abortion through means that may put their mental and physical health at risk and diminish their autonomy and dignity.

Abortion rights defenders have also come under fire in Poland. In March 2023, a Warsaw court convicted Justyna Wydrzyńska, co-founder of the activist group Abortion Dream Team, of helping a woman to procure medication abortion pills. Wydrzyńska, who was sentenced to eight months of community service, is appealing the conviction.

“By going after women and girls who need medical care – and doctors who provide it – Polish authorities are using their powers to terrorize people instead of to protect basic rights,” Margolis said. They added: “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.”

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Image credit: Thomas – Creative Commons