Hell Is In Poland: Pregnancy, Power and Protest

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Ida CovcinIda Covcin talks about growing up in Poland and what that meant for her ideas about and experiences with sex and possible pregnancy, and participating in the powerful abortion bans that have taken place there over the last few years.

2001

I just started primary school. I have long hair and a lot of friends. I generally feel pretty happy about my life. I like climbing trees and reading. That last bit is hard to miss – I’m a nosy child, and so far books proved to be the best source of information.

My mom has a fair share of odd titles in her bookshelf, so once in a while I look through them in search of forbidden knowledge. One of the books is a child-friendly piece about pregnancy. I had a vague idea of what sex meant, but some parts were unclear. The book provided me with some, but not all, of the answers to my questions. My parents must’ve noticed, because I later found a gift on my bed – “Peter, Kate and Their Baby Brother”, originally in Swedish. It was very detailed, maybe even a little too detailed for me, but it gave me a proper understanding of the link between sex and pregnancy.

What’s more, the book mentioned periods! I was relieved to find out that you do not bleed every day, phew! But the book also mentioned that some girls get their periods as early as eleven. That sacred me. Dealing with the unknown was never my strong suit, and that paired with a sudden fear of getting my period during class was terrifying. In my head, it was supposed to happen much later, maybe around high school. I was confused, but pretty sure the book wouldn’t lie about something like that. I didn’t know what I could do to prepare for it. That book made me feel overwhelmed. Sadly, neither of my parents ever gave me a “talk”, so I was left with those worries on my own.

2009

I’m in my second year of middle school. I just turned 15, but I look like a confused child. My period kicked in, but instead of making me more empowered, I feel humiliated. I struggle with fitting in. I had never kissed anyone, which made me question my femininity. Gossip about the sex life of my classmates intensified these feelings: slut-shaming mixed with jealousy and praise, spicy details shared through the grapevine. Despite no formal sexual education, we all know about condoms and common STIs. We might be young, but we know things. Tthat’s when I see a pregnancy test box in a school’s bathroom.

I grew up in a white, wealthy neighbourhood. There were no mansions, but we had a lot of parks, a reputation of being safe, and an abundance of shops with organic products. Besides that I hated to wake up early, I had a positive attitude towards education. The worst thing I saw in my primary school was a kid getting hit with a ball in the head by accident, if that. I thought people were kind by default, and that nobody was cruel on purpose. A naïve perspective, but that’s what I grew up with.

My middle school was nothing like that. I saw a girl coming to school so drunk she vomited in the bathroom during recess. I saw police cars going to the nearby meadow because yet another after school fight went too far. I knew that one of the girls from another class my same grade was having sex with men three times her age, just because she found it funny to be able to seduce them. During class a few students passed around a water bottle filled with vodka among each other. It wasn’t really about the alcohol, but the thrill of potentially getting caught. None of the adults seemed aware of those situations, or they all turned a blind eye to it. But for some reason, it was that empty, pink pregnancy test box that shocked me the most. Why?

Teen pregnancies are a source of severe social ostracism in Poland. Not as much in bigger cities, but it’s still common.  Abortion is not usually an option if sex was consensual. And even if it wasn’t, the amount of shame and ridicule that can happen during a police report makes it even harder for those girls to come forward. Stories in small towns spread quickly, and if your family is particularly religious, they might kick you out of the house.

In 2013, the Polish edition of the MTV series Teen Moms had its premiere. The youngest of the moms was 14 years old. Despite the good intentions of producers, the response was overwhelmingly negative. It ended up being a depressing image resembling more of a cautionary tale than anything else. Most viewers had only one type of comment to share: “They are all underage whores who fucked around too much.” Those girls received little to no sympathy while being blamed for their situation, unlike the biological fathers of their children. It raised an outrage and only made voices supporting sexual abstinence before marriage stronger. I heard girls’ whispers about late periods, but there was always a burst of tense laughter or a series of dark jokes following it. Under all of this boldness and carelessness, I was aware that pregnancy at this age was a one-way ticket to the dregs of society.

2013

I’m 19 and I’m horny. I had flirted and gone on dates before, but now I’m finally in my first “real” relationship, though it’s long distance. I’m ecstatic, but all the same, there is a lot of emotional pain paired with neverending waits for the next flight to see each other. I feel smug about my intense infatuation. In my head, this emotional high somehow makes me better than other people in love. Later I would realize that this relationship was also exhausting and toxic, but right now I’m still in love.

I know a lot about human sexuality, but my knowledge is purely theoretical. I was impatient to try things, but fear made the whole process relatively slow. We tried multiple sexual activities together, but despite a liberal upbringing I still felt that PIV sex was supposed to be this epic, magic moment – and that idea was intimidating me. I wanted it, but I didn’t want to be disappointed or even worse, pregnant. We agreed that condoms were a must, but didn’t make any specific plans beyond that. During one of the nights we spent together, it just naturally progressed to sex. We laughed, we cringed, and we were pretty sleep deprived afterwards. Neither of us came, but it was a lot of fun and I couldn’t wait to try it again.

The next morning my spontaneous decision started turning into anxiety. We didn’t have condoms on hand, so in the endorphin-fueled haze, I had made a call to keep going. My period was supposed to start in three days, making my risk of pregnancy low. During the night my brain genuinely thought it was a good idea – we were both sober, in a relationship and wanted it. I felt comfortable and excited. Happy. But after waking up, I was on the verge of a panic attack. I knew my situation wasn’t terrible, after all we were in a country where abortion was legal. But my flight back was in less than a week, and I didn’t know if that would be enough time. My partner did what he could to comfort me, but the roots of my fear ran deep. The very same day, we went out for dinner with his parents. I didn’t break out in tears, but apparently I looked like I was about to pass out.

I knew my family would support my decision, but that wouldn’t make abortion in Poland any more accessible. I would have had to either make sure to take care of this situation where I was or go back home and then travel abroad to get it done. I was restless, either blaming myself for my stupidity or reminding myself that my chances to get pregnant were close to zero. I knew that none of the local health professionals would judge me, but years of secondhand shaming left their mark.

I took a morning-after pill on the same day, and my period eventually started. I was relieved, and extremely grateful that we scheduled this meeting in his country. In Poland, abortion on demand was and is illegal. Emergency contraception is available in some pharmacies, but you need to get a prescription for it. It is a time-sensitive situation, so you have to pay for a private appointment. Even then, the doctor can refuse to prescribe it, if they feel it would affect their conscience, or at least give you his unwanted opinion about the beauty of motherhood.

2016

Most of us have never participated in a demonstration before. It feels surreal but I’m determined to go. A few friends and I form a group and take a bus to the city centre. I’m not sure what to expect, but I know that if the police get involved, things can go south very fast. On our way there we see people with signs, but it was hard to tell how many of us would show up. A few hundreds, maybe a few thousand people?

Once we got closer to the Old Town, I heard a noise that reminded me of the Baltic sea. A growing hum, still calm, but getting increasingly stronger.

We climb the stairs to the main square and suddenly, wherever I look, I see a never-ending sea of people – couples, singles, groups of friends, old and young ones, together. It’s a touching moment, even though the circumstances of our solidarity are grim. We are here, to make sure that we will be heard. We are sick of the government fucking us over for the sake of their bigoted sense of morality. I am furious, but the sense of unity makes me feel unstoppable. Every few minutes we all shout out “My body, my choice!” or “I won’t give birth when I’m dead!” The energy of the crowd is exhilarating. The rain keeps pouring on our heads, but we don’t stop. 30,000 voices, unified against this abuse of our rights.

We keep marching.

Due to the social pressure and the overwhelming response of their citizens, the proposed bill ended up being withdrawn.

We won, but it’s a bittersweet victory. There were no positive changes to the abortion laws, but the new suggested restrictions didn’t come to bear either. The fight isn’t over, but we have a chance to relax a little. We keep an eye on anti-choice supporters and right-wing politicians, but hope that the worst is finally behind us.

2020

Rage. Even that word doesn’t feel strong enough.

It’s astonishing, but it seems that our government forgot what happened four years ago. Big mistake. If they thought that the pandemic would stop us, they couldn’t be more wrong.

We are all fed up. People are losing their jobs, hospitals are barely coping with the skyrocketing amount of patients, and everyone is anxious and overwhelmed. Regardless of political preferences, criticism towards the leading party keep getting louder and louder. Their actions go beyond negligence – our president received a very generous offer from Germany (hospital beds and ventilators, free of charge), but refused it out of pride. His decision is extremely cruel: many local hospitals do not have any spare beds left. The tension is escalating, especially in the light of the government’s lack of preparation for a second wave of Covid-19. Dozens of doctors and nurses are quitting, due to a much higher risk of exposure, with no increase in pay. Teachers are left with no equipment necessary for remote learning. We are scared. Many parents are forced to ask elderly family members to look after their kids, as some of them aren’t able to work remotely. Everything is collapsing. And that’s when we were informed that abortion in case of severe fetal deformation would become illegal.

We are a very resilient nation, but this camel’s back broke. Outrage spreads across the entire country, fuelld by months of disappointment and frustration.  This decision feels like they’re spitting in our faces. The proposal is so restrictive that even some anti-choice supporters are against it. According to the local sources, only about 15% of Poles are in favour of the upcoming change in the law. This is not what we want.

“This is war! This is war! This is war!” The majority of the protests are peaceful, but emotions are running high. Up to 58% of Polish citizens believe that women should have the right to abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy. Those of us within this 58% were open to discussions for years. There were petitions, meetings, debates, with close to no effect. Left-wing party Razem (Together) tirelessly worked to liberalize abortion-related laws, to prevent domestic abuse, and to support LGBTQ+ rights. They went above and beyond to ensure justice and freedom, but there is only so much you can do when your president is a religious homophobe.

In 2016, after the first attempt at an abortion ban, we all took to the streets. Four years later, a group of sexist farts want to force us into becoming incubators yet again. But this time we are better organized, and we are more furious. We protest in defense of women’s rights, but other groups keep joining us. During marches, we see more and more pride flags. Taxi drivers block streets and put sings in their windows to show their solidarity. There is a significant increase in the number of protesters in their teens and early twenties, but also men of all ages. Four years ago, multiple protests happened in different parts of the country, but it pales in comparison to what is happening now. So far, there were a few HUNDRED protests across Poland, and that number keeps rising. We receive a lot of international support too (thank you!). Solidarity protests take place in Amsterdam, Berlin, Edinburgh, Oslo, Malmo, Vienna, London, Lisbon and Porto.

On the 30th of October, we want to form one huge march in the capital. All Poles are encouraged to come to Warsaw to show the scale of our outrage.

Outrage we show. It was a massive success, the biggest group protest since the 80s. There were over 100,000 of us, and we won’t back down. Do you want to make our lives a living hell? Go ahead, do it.

It follows that there are two ways for the nature and use of human power to change. One is that an order might issue from the palace, a command unto the people saying ‘It is thus.’ But the other, the more certain, the more inevitable, is that those thousand points of light should each send a new message. When the people change, the palace cannot hold.  – Naomi Alderman, The Power

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