Multimillion-Dollar Underground Industry Meets Demand as Efforts to Change Law Continue

Oct 22, 1996

Three years after Poland adopted one of the toughest antiabortion laws in Europe, a multimillion-dollar industry of thinly veiled deception prospers here and beyond the borders of this largely Catholic nation.

Newspapers in this capital city routinely advertise low-cost zabieg, a word that translates as "treatment" but is the unmistakable code for abortion. Physicians here and in Katowice, Krakow and Lodz take abortion appointments over the telephone, planning off-the-books work around regular office hours. More cautious practitioners limit their work to women they know -- in what one doctor called a "chain of goodwill" -- and, in some cases, charge no fee.

Travel agencies whose main purpose is to ferry women seeking abortions to the Czech Republic, Belarus and Ukraine operate freely in border towns. One agency operator boasted he has had as many as 1,200 clients a year, each paying no less than $300. Some physicians in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, where abortion is legal, cater to a Polish trade that comes by train and plane.

This month, opponents of the abortion ban are citing those contradictions as they mount the most serious parliamentary challenge yet to the 1993 law. The Sejm, the Polish Parliament's lower house, is expected to vote soon on an amendment to the law that would effectively restore the practice of abortion on demand here -- a situation that, in fact, is already in effect for women who have money and a working knowledge of the professional underground.

"After 40 years of communism, Poles should learn that the law means something," said Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, who introduced the abortion amendment. "If a law can't be enforced -- and this one can't -- it shouldn't exist. Law meant nothing in the Communist state. We shouldn't preserve that tendency now."

Poland's 1993 law bans a procedure that was the country's most common contraceptive under Communist rule, with an estimated 500,000 abortions performed yearly in the 1960s. More restrictive than laws in any country in Europe except Ireland -- another largely homogenous, strongly Catholic country -- the Polish statute forbids abortion unless a woman has been raped, her health is judged at risk or her fetus could be seriously deformed.

Under the law, performing an abortion is a misdemeanor, but a woman who undergoes one is not liable to prosecution, which targets only the practitioner or those who assist. So far, the law has resulted in the investigation of a handful of physicians and a single trial, which ended in acquittal.

Nevertheless, one doctor in southern Poland, who estimated that about five women a month ask him for abortions, said that while he is not opposed on moral grounds he is leery of the law. "You sweat," he said of the risks. "It's a difficult subject for all of us. My job is not about abortion, but I try to look at a woman as a human being and not a thing. Some are just desperate."

Even so, the physician, a Catholic who asked not to be identified, said he has aborted the pregnancies of 20 women who came to him and has referred as many as 30 more prosperous patients to Britain and the Netherlands, where they pay up to $750.

"Am I religious? Yes. But I live and feel that if someone is to judge me and evaluate me, it is God," he said. "I don't need someone else -- and definitely not a man playing a political role or in cleric's robes -- to do that."

Physicians in other countries who provide abortions for Poles evince less soul-searching. A scheduler for a Berlin-based abortion clinic that advertises in a Polish weekly magazine wasted little time and few words on a caller who phoned from Warsaw about the possibility of an abortion. Within minutes, the scheduler set an 8 a.m. appointment for the following week. The price: $500. But "getting there is your problem," she said.

No one knows how many Polish women now undergo abortions. The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning estimates the number to be at least 40,000 a year, the most conservative figure in the current debate. Even if the total is a fraction of that, the revenue spirals into the millions of dollars.

"When I worked, I worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Arkadiusz Gil, the lone travel agent to face trial on charges of transporting women from Poland to the Czech Republic for abortions. "In the early days, we did it as a charity. Then a market evolved, and I adjusted."

Until he was arrested in 1994, Gil said, he offered the cheapest tour -- about $300 for an abortion, plus transportation from the southern town of Cieszyn -- over a 14-month period. The thin 36-year-old, who will go on trial this month, will not say how many women bought his tours or how much money he pocketed.

"I can tell you that the doctors, the underground and businesses like mine account for millions of dollars in business," he said. "I made a lot of money. . . . I'm not a saint. We shouldn't be ashamed of making money."

That could change this month. The Sejm voted in September to amend the 1993 law and allow abortions for women "who find themselves in difficult living conditions or have other important personal reasons."

The amendment was defeated in the Senate, where support for it crumbled under pressure from the Catholic Church and some last-minute political maneuvering by right-wing politicians. Pope John Paul II addressed the vote in his native Poland with anguish and fervor: "A nation that kills its own children has no future."

But the Sejm is expected to vote again on the amendment soon, and passage by a vote of a majority plus one would send the bill directly to President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who has promised to sign it.

The outcome is by no means assured. Political analysts say Sejm support for the amendment is dwindling. While surveys indicate most Poles favor more liberal abortion standards -- not always for the same reasons -- the silent majority lends small comfort to lawmakers who know that Poland's bishops, priests and nuns can strongly influence the vote in parliamentary elections next year.

Although nearly three of every four Poles questioned in a recent survey said they do not want preaching mixed with politics, even politicians who challenge the abortion law say that, as one put it, the church's role "cannot be discounted."

The number of abortions began declining a few years before the restrictive law was enacted. As Communist rule crumbled, the church began a forceful campaign against abortion and artificial contraception. In 1991, the number of abortions recorded in state facilities fell by half from the previous year.

Since the law was passed in 1993 and the abortion underground began thriving, official statistics have strained credulity. Last year, 559 abortions were recorded in a country of 38 million people.

At the same time, contraceptive use has increased, a byproduct of the antiabortion debate. But contraceptives are expensive for the average Pole, and church influence has kept sex education in schools to a minimum. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the number of miscarriages, self-induced miscarriages and infanticides has risen, according to statistics compiled by the Federation for Women and Family Planning.

One woman, who asked for anonymity, counts herself among those statistics. She had an abortion in 1983 -- a legal, two-hour procedure in a state hospital. In 1993, with two children, she feared she was pregnant again. She appealed to a physician friend who came to her home and, after an exam, told her: "You're pregnant. What are you going to do?"

The woman, who said she could not afford another child -- and simply could not fit another person into her small apartment -- asked the doctor to abort the fetus. The physician dilated her cervix, roughly manipulated her uterus for 20 minutes and told her to watch for signs of bleeding. It began the next day, and the woman sought help at a state hospital where her friend worked. No one asked her, she said, how the bleeding started.

Both abortions were difficult choices, she said. As a mother, the second was far more troubling. "I was fed up," she said of her mood at the hospital. "I already had a heavy burden of deciding to go through with it -- and then I had to have the indignity of hiding."