The U.K.'s media is well-known for being selective about what it reports from Europe, tending to think that our continent stops just outside Berlin and Asia starts somewhere in Moscow's suburbs. In between is a morass of "former communist countries" that are too far away (not to mention too poor) to warrant any immediacy, but too near to be thought of in any way as exotic.
However, this week the BBC went someway to redressing the issue by devoting 45 minutes of primetime Saturday evening scheduling to Poland, or, to be more precise, the thorny subject of abortion in Poland. The documentary was part of the Correspondent series, and focused on what happened for two weeks this summer in the fishing village of Władysławowo.
To recap, a Dutch pro-choice organization called Women on Waves arrived in a converted tugboat to offer Polish women abortions in international waters. The idea was that those women who, for whatever reason, wanted to terminate their pregnancy (up to a limit of six weeks) would board the ship, which would sail outside the 12-mile zone, be given the termination-inducing drug RU486, and sail back in again.
The problems started at once, with the port authorities refusing the vessel entry for three days as the camera showed a couple from Warsaw waiting anxiously on the quay. The woman explained that they already had two young children and, as her husband had just lost his job, they couldn't afford another mouth to feed. On the fourth day the ship docked, met by the local League of Polish Families MP and his "assistants", a dozen shaven-headed tracksuit-clad youths hurling abuse like "Murderers!", "Nazis!" and "Bolsheviks go back to Moscow!" The MP claimed that these women were acting against Polish sovereignty and were here to murder Poles.
The ship was immediately impounded by customs and everything on board was catalogued and sealed. The women went to the harbormaster's office to get the ship released and, as they entered, they were followed by a hail of eggs splatting against them and the doors. The camera panned around to the MP; he had a broad smile on his face, his arms open wide, and he was saying "It wasn't me", while the half-dozen thugs around him looked anywhere but at the lens. The women were fined zł.60,000 and the ship was allowed to go.
Eventually they made three trips into international waters, where the customs seals could legally be broken and carried out ten abortions. Although the League of Polish Families had been defeated, the MP contented himself with claiming disgustedly that the town was now awash with these pills, and that this was the kind of thing Poles could expect after accession to the EU. The League of Polish Families' position on abortion is extreme by any standards: according to them even victims of rape who are impregnated should be forced to carry the fetus to term.
And there is a sting in the tale. When the ship arrived back in Władysławowo for the last time, customs again catalogued its contents and, as there were fewer pills than there had been, they started a criminal investigation against the Polish doctor who had prescribed them. Worse, this still-ongoing investigation includes the ten women who went on the ship; as they had to go through passport control, their names and address were duly passed on to the prosecutor's office and they have all been questioned.
Finally, the documentary ended not at the coast, but in a taxi speeding through downtown Warsaw. In it was a woman called Sylwia, on her way to undergo one of the 80,000 illegal abortions performed in Poland every year.
The irony of the situation is perfectly clear: men such as the MP, who have the breathtaking arrogance to presume to know what's best for desperate women (a desperation they cannot possibly begin to comprehend), have spent the last four years in the Sejm exacerbating the grinding poverty in rural areas, thus creating yet more desperate families. Contrast that with the modest but determined bravery shown by the women involved, both Dutch and Polish, and you have a sobering example of what happens when religion, nationalism and politics clash head-on in this country. Thanks to Correspondent, several million viewers in the U.K. also now have a much better idea of just how advanced Poland's infant democracy is.
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