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In Poland, Being a Woman Can Be Bad for Your Health

Government Seeks to Limit Sales of ‘Morning After’ Pill

Protesters hold coathangers to illustrate the danger to women’s safety posed by an outright ban on abortion. © Reuters

Poland’s government is again trying to curb women’s control over their bodies.

After last year’s attempt to impose a near-total ban on abortion, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has introduced a bill to limit sales of emergency contraception, or the “morning-after pill,” which can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex, including in cases of rape.

Under the pretense of ensuring quality health care, Poland’s Minister of Health said the law is to allow women to get medical advice about “whether these substances negatively affect health.” In reality, it is a pretext to further limit reproductive choice.

The European Commission approved over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive ellaOne in 2015, sanctioning it’s purchase without a doctor’s visit or prescription. It is currently available at Polish pharmacies to women and girls over the age of 15. The new law would ban such sales, forcing women and girls to see a doctor first.

Such restrictions are risky and unnecessary; emergency contraception works within a limited timeframe, and is most effective when taken quickly after unprotected sex, so rapid access is essential. The World Health Organization deems the pills safe and says they should be available as part of necessary reproductive health care.

Poland’s abortion law is already among Europe’s most restrictive, and, under the “conscience clause,” medical personnel can refuse to perform abortion or provide contraception on the grounds that it violates their values or beliefs. Women not only have to get to a doctor, they have to get to one who agrees to provide the care they need. In the process, women’s groups report, many experience stigma, intimidation, and misinformation.

Misinformation persists even at the highest levels: though emergency contraceptives prevent pregnancy before it begins, Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin reportedly likened them to “express abortion.”

Like last year’s proposed abortion legislation, this bill caused significant protest, including a petition from 91 women’s and human rights groups. Unlike last time, however, the government hasn’t backed down, and the bill passed both houses of parliament last week. Only President Andrzej Duda’s signature is needed to make it law.

Ironically, inability to access emergency contraception could increase demand for abortion, leaving more women and girls with unwanted pregnancies they are desperate to terminate. Faced with restricted abortion access, some will likely resort to unsafe abortions that carry risks including infection, haemorrhage, and death.

Officials may try to sell this bill as a safeguard for women’s health, but it is exactly the opposite. President Duda should refuse to sign the bill into law. To genuinely respect women's health and rights, Poland's government should ensure access to all reproductive health services, and leave decisions about women’s bodies to the women themselves.

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