The fight for sexual and reproductive health rights (SHRH) continues in Poland, as the country’s contraception access policies were deemed “exceptionally poor,” in a recent European Parliamentary Forum (EPF) study.
“I was like calling my friends freaking out,” recounted Ali*, a 24-year-old university student in Krakow. Shortly after moving to Poland, Ali found herself in need of an emergency contraception pill, but obtaining it was a struggle she hadn’t anticipated.
In 2017, the right-wing lead Polish government approved legislation restricting access to emergency contraception, making Poland one of the few countries in the EU to require a doctor’s prescription for this.
“It was a weekend and doctors’ offices were closed and it’s obviously something you need to take quickly,” Ali continued. With the help of local friends, she eventually found an online prescription form for the pill, both costing her a total of € 50.
Ali’s experience is shared by many women living in Poland.
“The state in my opinion is torturing its citizens and depriving them of basic rights,” stated Remigiusz Bak, Program Coordinator for Europe at the EPF.
EPF’s findings on contraception access policies reflect the declining SHRH environment in the country with a lack of government-supported websites on contraception, a lack of coverage schemes in the national health system, and a lack of special arrangements for vulnerable groups.
Although on a policy level Bak explained nothing truly changed since last year, he admits the situation is worsening due to a “massive influx” of immigrants, which raises the demand for contraception in a country with restrictive access policies.
The barriers for contraception are particularly worse for those coming from outside the EU.
Brenda, a 27-year-old student, moved from Latin America to Krakow on a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree. Three months later, she found herself in the same situation as Ali, but without the ability to speak Polish, an EU citizenship, or national health insurance.
“I kind of assumed that since it was in the European Union, it would be more liberal,” she explained, “but it was quite a surprise when I came and it was even more strict than my home country.”
Like Ali, Brenda needed help from a Polish friend to make sense of the system, and to find her a health provider that had walk-in appointments, as Brenda was unable to use an online prescription form at the time due to her immigrant status.
Obtaining the emergency contraceptive pill cost Brenda the equivalent of 10% of the scholarship money she received for that month.
But the issues go beyond the costs and access to prescriptions.
Though the legal age of sexual consent is 15 years old, a gynecologist appointment for those under 18 requires, by law, for a parent or guardian to be present or to provide written consent.
Some fear this can prevent young women from freely discussing and requesting information from doctors.
“They are mature enough to have sex, but not mature enough to talk about it with the doctor on their own,” said Roza*, a 24-year-old student in Warsaw, who, like Ali and Brenda, struggled with the contraception policies of the country.
But the ongoing fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) may be overshadowed by national security issues, as the war in Ukraine continues just across the Polish border, Bak explained.
Nevertheless, despite the worrying trends of restrictions on SRHR , there are still voices in the Polish parliament actively fighting against this.
In 2018, a parliamentary group focused on SRHR, composed of members of parliament from the left party Lewica, and KO, the Civic Coalition, became a member of the EPF.
“If I don’t have two calls with them, at least, per week, it means it’s a very silent week,” Bak said, “MPs are engaged there and understand the cause, which is a very good sign for the future.”
*Some names have been changed as sources chose to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic*