I hate it when my husband, who only follows international news outlets, asks me if I’ve heard what’s happening in Poland. Because it never means anything good. The last good news about Poland that made international headlines was when Olga Tokarczuk received the literature's Nobel prize. That was the end of 2019.
Before and after that, all headlines that he saw were related to the polish government steadily dismantling the democracy of my homeland.
On the 22nd of October, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion due to fetal defects is illegal. This effectively puts an end to any legal abortions performed in this country.
I’ve never been so happy I left Poland almost 3 years ago.
But my friends are still there.
The previous occasion when Poland made international headlines was when about 100 municipalities (about 1/3 of the polish territory) declared themselves LGBT-free zones. I’d lie if I say that this came as a surprise. It was just another step in a long campaign attacking the LGBT community. It caused an international backlash, end to many partnership agreements between LGBT-free Polish cities and other European cities. There were also stern speeches by EU leaders and the withdrawal of EU granted funds.
I come from Warsaw, the capital. By polish standard, it’s an incredibly progressive city. But it’s a bubble. Bubble in which I lived for 25 years. A bubble in which my (many gay) friends still live. But while this bubble protects them to some extent, its walls are becoming thinner and thinner.
After the last presidential election, which was won by Andrzej Duda, widely known as a passive tool of the currently governing party, some of them finally decided that it’s time to leave. That they have enough resources and skills to build a new life in a new country where they will be recognized as citizens with full rights. My only regret is that this process takes much longer than it should for someone with their qualifications due to the pandemic.
But there are also those who could leave but don’t want to. As their reasons, they cite family ties, work, or just the fact that they don't want to leave.
The question I ask myself when I hear their reasons is how I can explain the feeling of freedom I experienced after moving to London.
Almost 3 years ago
On the 28th of February 2018, I landed at London Heathrow airport. It was the final step in my plan to move there.
It wasn’t something I planned. I always knew that I’d like to live in a place that saw me for who I was rather than how many children I can bere. But this feeling never hatched into an exact plan of wheres, whens, and hows. You don’t enter a marriage thinking about a divorce. Even if it’s an arranged marriage. But as luck would have it, my then-boyfriend decided to move to London for work, and me being between jobs and knowing that I’d like to change the industry, decided to follow. It took me about 3 months to start thinking about London as my new home.
For once, the feeling of constantly being judged on the street disappeared. My mother equipped me with a conviction that I should always express myself through my look if I wanted to (she grew to regret that as my love for vintage 80' clothes grew thanks to London’s fabulous second-hands). So I did, even in Poland. But back there, there was always someone who had a problem with how I looked (mind you, I wasn’t really alt or even close)—too short hair, too weird makeup, clothes not feminine enough. Against my will, I often found myself toning things down for the sake of peace. I was my true self in a small circle of friends, but that was it. And suddenly I was in this big city where others couldn’t care less about how I looked. I was free to experiment with all those things I was holding back in Poland. Sure, I’d get an occasional stinky eye from some City banker, but coming from a white, middle-aged male, it couldn’t be a better compliment.
But that aspect was not as important as the problem of sex.
Having sex in Poland is scary if you’re a woman. If you want to protect yourself, the only easily accessible option you have is condoms. And condoms fail.
If you want something more reliable, all hormonal solutions are on prescription. Getting an appointment is hard. And a doctor has a right to refuse the prescription based on the so-called conscience clause. They can also use it in cases of legal abortions. Until recently, there were 3 reasons for legal abortion in Poland:
- pregnancy endangered the mother’s life or health
- tests indicate a high risk that the fetus will be severely and irreversibly damaged or suffer from an incurable life-threatening condition
- pregnancy is the result of a criminal act (only until the end of the 12th week of pregnancy, though)
In practice, legal abortions in state hospitals seldom happened. They happened in the private practices of doctors using a conscience clause. And they cost appropriately.
If the pregnancy was a result of bad luck, you were out of luck. The only 2 options available were illegal abortion in a private practice that cost 2–5x the minimum wage. If you wanted to do it in civilized conditions and not expecting a police bust at any moment, a trip to Slovenia, Germany, Czechia, or the Netherlands was necessary.
Each intercourse was a risk. Even for someone like me, working, coming from a middle-class background, the money needed for emergency abortion would be hard to get by.
When I settled in London and organized the most urgent matters, the first thing I did was get an implant. It happened in an east London walk-in clinic within a few hours of me signing up. The next time I’ll have to think about it is in June 2021.
I don’t want children. I plan to be a great aunt but having my own was never an option. In Poland, I’m the worst kind of traitor according to politics. In the UK, I’m just another citizen deciding what to do with their body.
On the 22nd of October
On the 22nd of October, the Polish government destroyed the very last bit of little freedom women had over their bodies. And I’m scared for my friends. And for all polish people who have vulvas. Because if you have one, you can or be forced to get pregnant. And Poland is the worst place in Europe for that.