European Court of Human Rights

(WOMENSENEWS)–A few years ago a string of doctors told Alicja Tysiac she couldn’t have an abortion even though she would otherwise likely go blind.

A 35-year-old single mother of two living in Warsaw, Poland, Tysiac had suffered from severe myopia–or nearsightedness–for many years. Three gynecologists told her that if she gave birth to her third child, her sight would almost surely worsen.

But Tysiac was unable to get doctors to perform the abortion that could save her sight. One doctor at her local hospital in Warsaw denied her application in the hallway without even examining her, Tysiac told Women’s eNews. A second doctor, after consulting the first doctor in front of Tysiac, also turned her down.

She delivered her third child in November 2000 and not long afterward she suffered retinal hemorrhage, which left her unable to see objects more than five feet away without the assistance of special glasses. She believes she will one day go completely blind.

Poland, which before joining the European Union in 2004 made a pact with the Vatican to never liberalize its strict law against abortion, is part of a European anti-abortion stronghold.

Portugal and Ireland also hold on to their strict abortion laws but strong pro-choice groups in those countries are pushing to change public opinion. Malta, the tiny island country that joined the EU in 2004, forbids abortion under any circumstance and has withstood pressure from the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to update it laws.

Tysiac decided to take a broad stand against Poland’s abortion law, arguing that it infringes a person’s right to private life, one of a handful of human rights the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, is mandated to uphold.

In February, the human rights court–which takes cases from all European countries, including those outside the European Union–heard Tysiac’s case.

Amid a backlog of abortion-related cases awaiting hearing or judgment involving women from Ireland, Portugal, the Netherlands and many other EU countries, the court has set no date for issuing a judgment.

Thousands of Illegal Abortions

In 1993, four years after the nation became a democracy, Poland, which is 95 percent Catholic, severely restricted abortion rights.

A year later President Lech Walesa vetoed a Parliament-approved measure that would have permitted abortions in cases of adverse social and administrative conditions, according to the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, a nongovernmental organization based in Warsaw.

Under the 1993 law public hospitals in Poland–but never private hospitals–may legally perform abortions if at least three doctors agree that the pregnancy is a serious danger to a woman’s life or physical health; if a prosecutor finds that a pregnancy is the result of a crime; if tests (that run no risk of causing miscarriage) show a serious and irreversible genetic defect; or if in an emergency, a woman’s life can be saved only by terminating her pregnancy.

Staffers at the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, say the lack of specific medical criteria makes doctors reluctant to grant abortion certificates. The group estimates that only 150 to 200 abortions are performed legally each year, compared to 180,000 annually before 1993.

Tysiac had hoped doctors would allow her the abortion because of the extreme risk to her eyesight. “But that is theory,” Tysiac said, referring to the exceptions in the law that her doctors failed to apply to her, or even closely consider. “Practice is more complicated.”

Thousands of Illegal Abortions

When she realized that legal abortions would not be possible, Tysiac began looking into having an illegal abortion.

Women on Waves, a nongovernmental group based in Amsterdam, Netherlands, operates ships that provide off-shore advice and medical abortions to women in abortion-restricted countries. It says that between 80,000 and 200,000 Polish women have illegal abortions or go aboard the ship annually to receive pills to induce a medical abortion.

Tysiac found that illegal abortions typically cost $500. That was expensive but not impossible for Tysiac, a single mother living on a disability pension of about $175 a month.

Borndiep, ship of Women on Waves

Then the provider of illegal abortions with whom she was speaking told her that because her two children had been delivered by Caesarian section her procedure would be more complicated and boosted the charge to $1,700, more than three times the average monthly wage in Poland.

Tysiac–whose eyesight, according to court documents, had already seriously deteriorated by her second month of pregnancy–decided the cost was prohibitive.

Criminal Complaint Dismissed

In 2001 Tysiac filed a criminal complaint against her gynecologist but the district investigator said there was only a casual link between her gynecologist’s decision to continue the pregnancy and her worsening sight. Her case was dropped and no disciplinary action was ever taken against the doctor, according to court documents.

Tysiac’s case against her gynecologist drew national press coverage as well as public censure. After 60 Catholic women’s groups in Poland launched street protests and a media campaign against her, Tysiac said her children started being harassed in school. To shield them from the controversy, she said she forbade them to watch TV.

Tysiac said she has been criticized for not seeking financial compensation in Poland’s Highest Administrative Court.

She said she has never sought compensation and is tired of being harassed in the press and in public as only being interested in the money.

The only solace she received, she says, were the letters of support that flooded in from Germany, and the pair of donated glasses that allow her to see up to five feet in front of her.

–Aleksandra Michalowska in Brussels contributed to this article.

Meghan Sapp is European correspondent for Women’s eNews. She is a freelance journalist based in Brussels, Belgium, and writes primarily on trade, development and agriculture issues.

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For more information:

Women on Waves:

Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning:

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