In Berlin, leftist graffiti dominates the streets. Unless you venture far enough into Pankow which I can’t recommend you will likely only find posters, street art, stickers and graffiti that fit Berlin politics: left rights, queer and pro-reproductive. Less than two hours away in Poland, that’s a whole different story. There is a Polish joke that goes: “If you are standing in the street and there is an anti-abortion poster behind your back and you don’t see one in front of you, it means you have reached the border.”
Since 1993, abortion has been illegal in Poland, except in cases of fetal abnormalities, serious risk to the life or health of the pregnant person, or rape or incest. In October 2020, the country’s Constitutional Court struck the first of these fetal anomalies from the list of authorized cases. And although this law didn’t come into effect until January 2021, hospitals started turning people away last fall. Contraception is available in Poland but can be refused on the basis of a “conscience clause”, which means that medical staff can refuse access because of their beliefs.
Due to the lack of reproductive health care available in Poland, a collective called Ciocia Basia created a route for pregnant women to travel to Berlin for abortions. I spoke with Zuzanna Dziuban, an activist and volunteer for the group to understand these vital services and how the stance on abortion differs across the border.
“Ciocia Basia means Aunt Barbara in Polish,” says Dziuban. “That way, if someone calls or writes an email to their Aunt Barbara, it’s not suspicious because everyone has an Aunt Barbara.” Ciocia Basia is part of Abortion Without Borders, a support network that works to give Poles access to abortion in neighboring countries. These groups cooperate with various sister organizations such as Ciocia Wienia in Vienna or Ciocia Czesia in the Czech Republic.
Ciocia Basia engages in practical activism: advocacy through direct action. In this case, that means connecting Poles seeking abortions to clinics here in Berlin. Ciocia Basia arranges transport, interpreters, accommodation (often with volunteers) and loving support for clients in Berlin, as well as payment for the procedure if necessary. An abortion in Berlin costs up to 900 euros, and although the procedure is not often discussed here, it is still available. A person seeking an abortion in Berlin should receive counseling to ensure that the choice of abortion is self-sufficient and that they understand the procedure.
But bringing someone to Berlin for an abortion is not the first or the only option for those seeking an abortion in Poland. Because it’s technically not illegal to have an abortion there, only illegal to perform (or help do) one, an organization called Women help women sends more than 8,000 abortion pills to the country every month. Women Help Women also sends condoms, contraceptives and emergency contraceptive pills.
Women Help Women and the World Health Organization recommend only pill abortion (also called medical abortion) for up to 12 weeks after the onset of pregnancy, and Ciocia Basia always remains on the phone with the person while she is pregnant. she takes the pills to make sure she feels she knows what to expect. “The network of abortion support groups has effectively replaced the Polish healthcare system,” says Dziuban.
When using the pills, Women Help Women asks clients to fill out a questionnaire to make sure there will be no health complications. In Germany, on the other hand, a person seeking a medical abortion must go through support. In other words, this service technically facilitates medical abortion in Poland than in Germany.
But many people contact Ciocia Basia after 12 weeks. The second option is to bring them (and a support person if they wish) to Berlin. But in Germany, abortion is only legal until 14 weeks after the onset of pregnancy. There are two options left: the Netherlands, where abortion is available for up to 22 weeks, and the UK, where abortion is available for up to 24 weeks. “We want to cover the whole spectrum of reproductive rights,” says Dziuban.
And if Ciocia Basia receives a call from someone who is more than 24 weeks pregnant, there is one last option. France and Austria both offer anonymous birth and adoption. A client can walk into a hospital and give birth without sharing their identity. In this case, Ciocia Wienia accompanies the person throughout the process and offers him support.
The collective uses gender-neutral pronouns to emphasize the fact that not only do cis women have abortions. “In Poland, feminist actions are inspired by the tactics of queer activists,” says Dziuban. “We have to be in an alliance as we fight the same patriarchal violence.”
The pandemic has made Ciocia Basia’s job more difficult. To cross the border, customers must test negative, and Covid tests are still expensive (around 150 euros) and hard to find in Poland. Ciocia Basia pays for the tests and receives a note from a Berlin clinic to exempt the person from quarantine because abortion is a medical procedure. This adds additional stress and slows down a time sensitive operation.
Additionally, Ciocia Basia has seen an increase in the number of people seeking abortions since the start of the pandemic. With increased economic insecurity, “people don’t want to be pregnant because they can’t afford it,” says Dziuban. In 2019, Ciocia Basia helped around 100 people to have abortions. In the six months ending in April 2021, the collective has helped more than 270 people.
Abortion in Poland is not only a legal issue, but it also carries a huge stigma. “We never ask someone why they choose to have an abortion, but they often tell us anyway,” Dziuban says. She sees their need to justify their choice as evidence of internalized stigma.
“Fighting for choice is a war of unequal means,” she said. “We don’t have the money to put a pro-choice poster on every street corner.” Ciocia Basia runs entirely on donations and luckily has never had to turn someone down due to lack of funding. Since the decision to toughen abortion laws last fall, the group has raised more than 45,000 euros, but any donation is precious. Every penny is spent on procedures, transportation, contraception and related services. You can donate here.
“These people are making very courageous decisions,” Dziuban says of those who seek abortions. “We are not offering them help, but support. Their decisions are a source of inspiration and empowerment. ”
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