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  • “You have a choice!” The Berliners fighting Poland’s abortion laws


“You have a choice!” The Berliners fighting Poland’s abortion laws

We meet the individuals providing a vital lifeline to Poles with unwanted pregnancies, and explore how Berlin has become a central site of resistance to Poland’s regressive government.

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From street activism to behind-the-scenes volunteer networks, we meet the individuals providing a vital lifeline to Poles with unwanted pregnancies, and explore how Berlin has become a central site of resistance to Poland’s regressive government. Photo: Liam Hayes

On October 20 last year, a flurry of postcards arrived at the Polish Embassy in Grunewald. Beneath a picture of a black umbrella and a deluge of dark pink blood were the words: “Julia, masz wybór!” (“Julia, you have a choice!”). The intended recipient was Julia Przyłębska, president of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal and wife of Andrzej Przyłębski, the Polish Ambassador to Berlin.

The Constitutional Tribunal, appointed by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), would go on to vote two days later that abortion in the case of severe foetal defects is unconstitutional, seeking to impose a de-facto ban on abortion in the predominantly Catholic country by eliminating the most common of the few existing grounds for legal termination.

The postcards were part of a letter-writing campaign organised by Polish feminist collective Dziewuchy Berlin in anticipation of the October 22 vote. Not content to let Przyłębska off quietly, activists set about discovering the location of her house in Dahlem.

By scrutinising an old TV interview given by the Przyłębski family, organisers noted features of the neighbouring buildings, from the colour of the rooftops to the number of surrounding trees, and cross-referenced them with images on Google Maps, analysing hundreds of properties until they found the right one.

On the evening of October 27, a group of 30 people arrived outside Przyłębska’s villa, armed with megaphones, drums and whistles. “Berlin doesn’t want you either”, “Enough is enough”, “This is war”, and “Bloody Julia” were painted on banners in black and red ink. As the Przyłębski family nervously lowered their blinds, chants of “Wypierdalać” (“Get the fuck out”) were heard long into the night; a phrase that echoed throughout Europe last autumn as millions took to the streets to peacefully protest the ruling.

Przyłębski’s residence here is not the only factor that makes the struggle for Polish reproductive rights a distinctly personal one for Berlin. Sitting just 80km from the Polish border, the city is home to more than 100,000 Poles, many of whom arrive in search of better LGBT+ and women’s rights, making the Polish community second only to the Turkish in size.

“Berlin is definitely the epicentre of this fight outside Poland,” says 38-year-old Magdalena Milenkovska from Warsaw, who’s on the board of Razem Berlin, a branch of Poland’s emergent left-wing party. “Civil engagement and activism just feel natural here, and with such an international population, it also creates space for cross-country cooperation.” Solidarity for Polish abortion rights stretches far and wide in Berlin, from the streets and the Bundestag to apartments and clinics.

Becoming visible

Forty-four-year-old Anna Krenz, Dziewuchy Berlin’s founder, has witnessed the myriad ways in which Berlin has mobilised in support of Polish reproductive rights, which were under attack long before October’s vote. An architecture graduate from Poznan, Krenz moved to Berlin “for love” in 2002 and set up the politically engaged Gallery Zero in Kreuzberg, committed to showcasing Polish artists.

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Anna Krenz and her feminist collective Dziewuchy Berlin organised the seven “Bloody Weeks” of protest from October till December last year, featuring demos, strikes, performances and online actions. Photo: Liam Hayes

When PiS came to power in Poland for a second time in 2015, Krenz joined the Committee for the Defence of Democracy’s Berlin chapter; the group protested against a range of PiS policies, but Berlin’s Polish community was still missing a women-specific organisation. In April 2016, as outrage grew over a proposed bill to ban abortions in Poland in all cases except to save a woman’s life, Krenz sought to rectify this by founding Dziewuchy Berlin, the Berlin branch of the Polish feminist movement Dziewuchy Dziewuchom.

“We were needed as a body because no one was speaking up for Polish women,” Krenz says from her apartment in Friedrichshain. As a Facebook community, Dziewuchy Berlin now has more than 4700 followers, though its organisational team consists of around 10 members, aged from 20 to 60, including one man.

Dziewuchy’s seminal moment came during the Black Protests of October 2016. Poland’s parliament had just debated the antichoice bill but rejected outright a competing pro-choice bill in the same session, even though the latter had succeeded in gathering the required number of signatures.

“Our bill was literally thrown to the garbage,” Krenz says, prompting “a wave of anger and energy that came from Poland to Berlin”. On October 3, in coordination with protests in Warsaw, Dziewuchy organised a demo on the steps of Warschauer Brücke, which attracted more than 2000 people. “The Black Protest was a breakthrough moment for Polish and German feminist relations,” affirms Krenz. “There was solidarity before, but something new started. Polish women became visible in Berlin.”

2020’s “bloody” autumn

Four Octobers later, Dziewuchy Berlin was poised to act. They organised seven “Bloody Weeks” of protest spanning till December – named after the red and white motifs on their banners, which represent “the Polish flag and the violence of the abortion ban”. Featuring demos, strikes, performances and online actions, Dziewuchy’s campaign had political weight behind it this time.

Ulle Schauws, Green party spokesperson for women’s policy and long-term advocate of Polish LGBT+ and women’s rights, spoke at the demo outside Brandenburger Tor on October 29. “I rarely come across such determination and devotion to a cause in protestors – it was a very moving experience,” she recalls. Schauws and her colleagues were active in the chambers of the Bundestag, too, condemning Angela Merkel’s silence over Poland’s ruling: “It’s deplorable that Merkel didn’t speak up. With Germany holding the EU Council Presidency at that time and as Chancellor of Germany, she could have made a difference.”

There was solidarity before, but something new started. Polish women became visible in Berlin.

Schauws’ signature was one of the first on a “Call for Action” appeal sent to the European Commission, urging it to launch an infringement procedure against Poland over the “illegitimacy” of its Constitutional Tribunal and its violation of women’s right to bodily autonomy. The appeal, which was initiated by Green MEP Terry Reintke and which gained 200 signatures, has not yet been passed, though the European Parliament voted to “strongly condemn” Poland’s proposed abortion ban on November 26, with 455 votes to 145.

Thirty-eight-year-old Razem Berlin member Paweł Jankiewicz, who also works closely with Dziewuchy Berlin, is sceptical about the EP’s ability to improve matters: “Its involvement risks being foreign intervention into domestic affairs, which is very problematic,” he says. Hailing from the provincial town of Sieradz, Jankiewicz is passionate about channelling support to “smaller, poorer places in Poland” – something being done by volunteer network Ciocia Basia, or “Aunt Barbara”, which provides a vital lifeline to Poles with unwanted pregnancies.

Heroes behind the scenes

Away from the political spotlight, Ciocia Basia works tirelessly to help Poles access safe abortions in Berlin, providing everything from appointment bookings, funding and translation to overnight accommodation and emotional support. The network was founded in 2014 by German filmmaker and writer Sarah Diehl, who was inspired after making her 2008 documentary, Abortion Democracy: Poland/South Africa, which compared changes to abortion law in the two countries.

“I thought that instead of making another film, I could be even more pragmatic by starting an activist group, to really get to the core of the issue,” she explains. Given its proximity to Germany, Poland seemed like the logical starting point. Not a Polish-speaker herself, Diehl initially felt “overwhelmed” by the planning required, but was spurred into action after receiving a Facebook message from a Polish woman who’d seen her documentary and wanted to know if Diehl could help her get an abortion in Berlin: “It was a beautiful coincidence and an invitation to just learn by doing, instead of trying to have the perfect plan in place.”

Ciocia Basia’s DIY element lasts to this day, its size dependent on the capacity of its volunteers. The group is currently 12-strong – the youngest aged 21 and the oldest in her fifties – with a core team of five. Since December 2019, however, Ciocia Basia has benefited from being part of Europewide network, Abortion Without Borders (AWB); Ciocia Basia is one of six abortion rights groups, which operate across Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, to provide practical support and funding to people in Poland.

Unlike partner groups in the Netherlands or the UK, three-quarters of Ciocia Basia’s volunteers are Polish. Zuzanna Dziuban, 39, a cultural scholar from Słupsk in northern Poland, joined Ciocia Basia around three years ago as a host for Poles staying in Berlin and has been working remotely since she moved to Vienna last year. She devotes three to six hours to Ciocia Basia every day, taking care of all the things that can be done remotely, like first contact coordination. “I inform callers about available appointments, costs and the obligatory consultation with a social worker that takes place three days before a procedure, as demanded by German law.”

We hid the woman for four months and helped her give birth anonymously at the Charité…

Around 80 percent of the calls Ciocia Basia receives are from people in the early stages of pregnancy, who can obtain safe pills for a home abortion from AWB organisations like Women Help Women, though Ciocia Basia’s volunteers are always on-call to talk people through the process.

If the pregnancy is over 10 or 11 weeks but under Germany’s 14-week limit, the team arranges for clients to travel to Berlin for the termination. Through AWB funding and private donations, they cover the procedure (around €400) and all expenses. Dziuban says they’re often too busy to count exact numbers, but that they can expect between three and nine people coming to Berlin for surgical procedures each week. During one of our 40-minute interviews, her work phone rings four times with requests from Poland.

A perfect storm

The Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling legally came into force on Wednesday 27 January, though its effects have been felt since the vote in October. For fear of being sent to prison, Polish doctors were already refusing to perform foetal-defect abortions, which accounted for 98 percent of those performed officially in 2019

 “This ban is patriarchal, it’s violent, it’s inhumane and it also results in people who wouldn’t usually consider terminating their pregnancies deciding to do so because they’re too afraid to wait for the results of the pre-natal test,” Dziuban states, though she stresses that Polish doctors have always been obstructive in terms of giving lawful abortions.

The ruling topped off a difficult year for Ciocia Basia, given the complications of Covid-19. Their most stressful moment came in spring, when Poland and Germany closed their borders, forcing one client to cross from Słubice to Frankfurt an der Oder on foot, before getting the train to Berlin. Despite initial fears that they wouldn’t be able to operate, the team combed through the regulations and realised that a time-sensitive medical procedure is enough to offer exemption from quarantine, provided the clinic issues a certificate.

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The Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet, or All-Poland Women’s Strike, movement began in Poland in September 2016 to protest the tightening abortion laws. Photo: Iga Lubczańska / Creative Commons

Ciocia Basia works with two Berlin clinics, which it doesn’t name due to pressure from anti-choice groups. “The clinics are sensitive to the specificity of people coming from Poland,” Dziuban explains. “There is no profile of a person who comes to Berlin, but because of abortion stigma, Polish people are much more stressed than their German counterparts.”

This often proves to be the most sensitive factor in Ciocia Basia’s operations. “I was lucky enough to be raised in a household free from abortion stigma. When I was a teenager, my mother told me about her own experience with abortion, about how common it is,” remembers Dziuban, who only realised the extent to which abortion stigma is internalised when she picked up her first guest at Lichtenberg Station in the spring of 2018. “I was shocked by the state of anxiety this person was in. But that night we sat in my kitchen till 3am just talking and talking. It was amazing to provide a safe and stress-free space,” she smiles.

Diehl concurs that this anxiety arises less from fear of the procedure itself and more from an inability to discuss it with loved ones: “It’s really the loneliness and isolation that harms women.” Crucially, this isolation also makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. Though Ciocia Basia is well established, there remains uncertainty for Poles unfamiliar with the group.

“A lot of them are worried they’ll be sold for organs or that everything is a scam, because how is it possible that instead of taking their money, we are helping them financially?” says Dziuban. In November, Ciocia Basia helped someone who’d been tricked into paying for a fake surgical abortion in Poland: they’d travelled to another town, been sedated and supposedly operated on, only then to discover that they were still pregnant during a check-up with their gynaecologist.

The apprehension of Ciocia Basia’s clients is further exacerbated by paragraph 219a of Germany’s criminal code, which prohibits clinics from advertising information about abortion procedures. Kristina Hänel, a Gießen doctor who was fined €6000 in 2017 (later reduced to €2500) for listing abortions under the provided services on her website, lost her appeal against the sentence last month, though not before sparking a nationwide debate about the legitimacy of the paragraph. Hänel still wants to take her complaint to the Federal Constitutional Court.

“The situation in Germany is also far from perfect,” remarks Schwaus, who is campaigning to eradicate section 218, which criminalises abortion, and 219a. “The new Grundsatzprogramm that the Greens ratified in November includes both demands… I am confident that reproductive rights will be a huge issue in this year’s election campaign.”

Long road ahead

Undertaking such critical work also leaves Ciocia Basia’s volunteers in a vulnerable position. “You’re an emotional buffer zone for someone else but you’re also the one who has to solve the problem; this can be such a burden,” admits Diehl, who’s on a two-year break from the group to write her latest book and focus on selfcare. The experience that prompted her to step back didn’t involve abortion at all.

“We looked after a woman who was too late for all procedures and didn’t want her Catholic family to know she was pregnant because they’d force her to keep the child. She was in a really horrible state,” she recounts. Ciocia Basia “hid her” in Berlin for four months, helped her give birth anonymously at the Charité, and arranged for the child’s adoption. Diehl found the process emotionally exhausting: “It makes me really angry; I see so many feminist activists burning out all the time because they try to pick up the shambles of society.”

A lot of them are worried they’ll be sold for organs or that everything is a scam, because how is it possible that instead of taking their money, we are helping them financially?

Schauws is committed to making structural changes to alleviate this kind of pressure. “Without groups like Ciocia Basia or Dziewuchy, the situation for most Polish women would be even worse,” she says. “But I wish and strive for their work regarding abortion to be unnecessary.” With the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling now published as law, Ciocia Basia has no choice but to keep moving forward. “There’s a lot happening in both directions right now,” Dziuban says. “It’s a difficult, stressful and tiring moment, but it’s also a very empowering one. And solidarity in Germany is constantly growing.”

Note: The low-down on Poland’s abortion law

Alongside countries like Malta and Gibraltar, Poland’s abortion law is among the most restrictive in Europe. In 1993, after a long history of changing requirements, the Catholic Church and political groups limited the grounds for abortion, making it legal only in cases of rape, incest, when the woman’s health or life is at risk, or if the foetus is irreparably damaged.

In cases of illegal termination, the patient is not subject to a criminal penalty but medical personnel carrying out the procedure are. On October 22 last year, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, whose members are selected by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), voted to clamp down on abortion even further by eliminating the foetal impairment clause.

Draconian moves like this aren’t new – throughout the 2010s, a number of bills were submitted to tighten or ban abortion altogether. The previous flashpoint came in 2016, when the Polish parliament debated a proposal to ban abortion in all cases except to save a woman’s life, threatening abortion providers with up to five years’ imprisonment. After mass protests and strikes, lawmakers voted the bill down. Similarly, last October’s ruling was initially delayed due to widespread protests, but it came into effect on January 27, 2021. Another wave of resistance is already in motion.