The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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JUNE 2022 Issue
Field Notes

“Got a womb? Welcome to hell”

Abortion Bans in Practice

“Got a womb? Welcome to hell,” I say to you, my fellow beings from across the Atlantic— alive, yet condemned to a life that belongs to you no longer. I am no Virgil but I’ve already been here for a while so let me lead you through the various circles of hell. Sit back, you won’t relax, but please make yourself at home. This hell is as old as time, as the specter of death is inextricably embedded in life. Though, mind you, only half of humanity is condemned to this hell on earth. By taking the brunt of housing life’s creation, in exchange we apparently need to sacrifice our own, whether we want to or not. But, with full respect to Dante, enough of this outdated talk. Take a look at the non-literary and very real, nitty-gritty consequences of living in a body that became a shell for someone else’s fanaticism.

If I were an oracle speaking from this long-forgotten land I would tell you that what happened in Poland can happen anywhere. I am a woman, though, of flesh and blood, so my words might not mean that much. But he who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Thou shalt not kill, am I right? I have some news for you: Abortion bans kill. They kill and murder ruthlessly, the blood can be also on your hands, if you happen to fervently stand by it. How do I know? Oh, usually I just hear it in the conversations we have in cafés, when hunched over in dim light we whisper to each other stories about people we know. So-and-so said that if she finds out the fetus in her womb is severely deformed and that she needs to carry it for another seven months, see her belly grow knowing the endgame is death anyway, she’s going to kill herself first. Another one found out too late, she’s currently scrambling to find out how much money it costs to get an abortion in Germany or Holland. She refuses to become a living coffin. We chat about this stuff between sips of cappuccino because that’s the hellish reality we’ve been up against since January 2021, when the Polish constitutional court’s decision, stating that it is no longer legal to terminate pregnancy due to fetal abnormalities, came into force. Before that ruling, 99% of abortions in this country were performed for that reason. Wanna get pregnant? Congrats, I guess you’re a risk-taker. These things still happen, fatal deformations happen, ectopic pregnancies happen, various medical issues happen, but we are no longer safe.

Hearsay? I’ll give you facts. Let me introduce you to some of us. Please meet Iza, a happily married thirty-year-old. Big wise eyes, radiant smile, a beaming mom to a nine-year-old daughter. In September 2021, she was twenty-two weeks pregnant; this is when her good life came to a stop. She is one of the first Polish women who experienced what it means to lose bodily autonomy in practice. Iza lost her life because the fetus dying inside her didn’t die quickly enough. Despite the fact that she was diagnosed with low amniotic fluid, doctors abstained from pregnancy termination in fear of the legal consequences of choosing the mother’s life above the fetus’s. The decision opened the way to septic shock, and Iza’s life was over. While still in hospital, she wrote anxious messages to her mom, as if sensing something bad was about to happen. “The baby weighs 485 grams. For now, due to the abortion law, I have to sit here and there is nothing they can do. They will wait until it dies… The heart needs to stop beating or [miscarriage] has to start… My bones hurt. I feel cold… What the hell, my life is in danger.” In despair, anguished and terrified, she was forced to wait. Iza’s final text read: “I’m going to sleep. Good night, Mommy, kisses!”

Someone might argue that Iza’s case was an exception to the rule, that it was an “unfortunate incident,” and that abortion is still allowed if the woman’s health or life is at risk. Well, that’s just in theory. In practice, by ruling abortion to be unconstitutional, even in the event of severe fetal impairment, the Constitutional Tribunal put disembodied law and words above experience. Life in its complexity cannot be legislated, as it can’t be successfully simplified into the text of a rule. All the different “ifs,” the different possibilities and pregnancy issues that couldn’t be written into law, were cynically shoved to the side, creating legislative ambiguity. Ambiguity that puts doctors’ careers and, by proxy, women’s lives in danger. “There are probably many more such cases. Doctors are waiting for the fetal heart rate to slow, even though they know it will happen, and the defect is lethal. We hoped for some change after [Iza’s] case, but it did not happen,” Krystyna Kacpura, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning NGO, said in an interview. The NGO works up a sweat, continuously helping women in need to find solutions and trustworthy doctors who can offer help. But things inevitably fall through the cracks, not everybody knows who to turn to when the need presents itself, or worse, people still trust that if the moment comes, the doctors will intervene.

But often, they don’t. Agnieszka was a mother of three and pregnant with twins. Right before Christmas, one of the twins died in her womb. The doctors did not want to remove the fetus and waited to see whether the second one could be saved. She was forced to carry its lifeless body for a week, until the death of the second twin. The doctors waited another two days to extract both of them and Agnieszka’s condition started to worsen. After a month of agony, she orphaned her three kids. “Not one more,” we yelled through tears, protesting arm-in-arm in the streets of bigger and smaller Polish cities, but this time we knew, it was official, our fates were sealed. Nothing protects us anymore. How did we get here?

Taking away someone’s agency over their body takes preparation. It usually starts with words and their redefinition. The sphere of language—this is where battles are lost. As soon as Communism ended and Poles took in a breath of freedom, ironically, Polish women’s rights to self-determination started to shrink. Very early on, the newly-elected democratic government started to meddle with access to abortion. From the sinusoid of pro-life and pro-choice ideas put forward in parliament, 1993 brought what was later called the “abortion compromise.” Before that point, apart from abortion in the case of a criminal act, risk to the mother’s life, as well as clear signs of severe disease in the fetus, women were able to seek abortion on the grounds of a difficult social situation. When the restrictions were tightened, that last aspect was dropped and the “compromise” was justified as a perfect balance between hedonism and respecting the rights of the conceived. As such, the meanings of words became tangled and twisted: “hedonism,” as if asking for body autonomy was self-indulgent, or “compromise,” as if two actual sides in the conflict had met halfway, content with the outcome of the agreement. In fact, women had no say; the law was made and enacted by people who never had to experience it in practice.

When words start floating in space, lacking nuance, context, and proportion, false images abound. The spectrum then has only two extremes. Either you are made out to be a selfless mother or you are a vulgar whore. Things you are up against: an idyllic, fictionalized vision of an easy-peasy pregnancy where nothing ever goes wrong and a beautiful rosy baby pops out of a woman’s body with no difficulty or tears. That’s why it’s so easy to vilify those who march in defense of reproductive health care, of their own right to live.

Coming next are obstacles, scattered at every turn. Say your abusive alcoholic husband just beat and raped you, you barely make ends meet, you can’t afford to get pregnant again. Ever since 2017 you can’t buy the morning-after pill over the counter and you need a prescription. So you make the first available appointment and wait a little. Then the doctor denies you the prescription because, little did you know, he has signed a so-called “conscience clause”: under a Polish legal regulation he may refrain from performing health-care services that are inconsistent with his beliefs. You, however, don’t have as much luck. Your conscience doesn’t matter here and, unlike the doctor who just saw you, you need to conform to something that is inconsistent with your inner voice. If it turns out you’re pregnant, you might think that abortion can be performed in cases of rape. But you think twice before going to the police. Marital rape? Whoever heard of something so absurd? Good luck convincing the prosecutor. “Tie your tubes!” someone might say. Actually, sorry, my dear, but that’s illegal here as well.

Phase three is downplaying. There is always something more important: inflation, pandemic, bad government we need to oppose, war, and how dare you make it all about yourself!? Nobody cares, it’s not the most pressing matter right now, we will talk about it when the time is right. But the time is never right, as the gravity of the issue is never relatable for all. Words battling experience, experience that is hard to put into words. Back in 2016, when the so-called “compromise” started being challenged more fiercely, we walked in the hundreds of thousands in the main squares of dozens of cities and towns. We wore black, carried black umbrellas, as if sensing the impending period of inevitable, collective mourning. The compromise wasn’t necessarily ideal for all, opinions differed, some were pushing for loosening the restrictions, some reused old false tropes of not wanting abortion to be a “form of contraception for the lazy and senseless”(which, spoiler alert, it never is) but all in all, the general agreement was: the compromise is not great, but let’s not meddle with it. On TV, seven men sat around talking about “different aspects of the debate” and giving “sound” pieces of advice on how women should react after rape and how they should feel about abortion. The same talking points reinforcing the same detached points of view of those who never experienced sexual acts of violence or pregnancy issues, talking at those who do. What do we know about our bodies, after all, stupid bitches?

We move on to disapproval. There are strict rules that we need to follow, otherwise our postulates won’t even be considered. Alright, go ahead, you can protest but can you stop being vulgar while you’re doing it? We get it, you’re pissed, but can you please cease from destroying public property? That’s rude. Interrupting masses in church? How dare you?! Leave religion out of it! There are always better, nicer ways to protest: be a good girl, well-dressed, polite, and put a smile on your face, then maybe, just maybe, we might consider paying attention to you. All-Poland Women’s Strike didn’t obey. During the wave of mass protests between 2020 and 2021, the police repeatedly kettled the protesters, pepper-sprayed them, used force when unprovoked, beat a woman with a baton, and harassed journalists.

Then comes hostility and hate. We protest, they comment. On Twitter, a journalist tweets: “It is particularly characteristic that the Left has completely demoralized young women. Among the demonstrators, the dominant type is that of an aggressive, vulgar whore.” Wild, wild beasts we are in the streets, unleashed and untamed. We are ugly, fugly, fat, not fuckable, an idiot with no agency, a gross feminist, a leg-spreader or for sure you haven’t been fucked for a long while, why else would you make such a big deal out of your womb?! Nobody would touch you with a stick, so why worry?

Suffering and sacrifice rarely get verbalized. Speaking about pain and emotions is not very palatable so it’s better not to go there. And when we do, it’s questionable, not relatable, trite. News broke not that long ago that Ukrainian women, raped during the Russian occupation of Bucha, were afraid to flee to Poland due to the restrictive abortion laws. One would think that in this particular case, suddenly, the need for accessing this medical procedure would be understood by all. Here is one of the billion, previously unthinkable situations, so outlandish it was never even considered when the law was being written. Women’s bodies, just like the beloved territory, invaded and ravaged by the violent aggressor. And yet, a stream of comments on Twitter: Hilarious, it’s a meme in itself! Refugees preferring to stay in a war-torn country because there’s no abortion here. You’re sickos, and you made it up. Propaganda, lies! Abortion on the grounds of rape IS legal. Well, yeah, except that rape needs to be confirmed by the prosecutor—impossible to do in the middle of a war. Out of all the things we might do to help the Ukrainian refugees, here is one that we couldn’t—provide the brutally raped with some peace of mind and a certainty that the aggressors’ twisted plan of forcefully “repopulating” Ukraine won’t come to fruition.

If I had the courage, I'd take a deep breath and tell you even more of the blood-curdling stories we whisper to each other in the comforting interiors of the safe places where we don't feel judged for the sheer fact that we want to stay alive, if the time comes. On the discussion boards where people seek help, stories abound: “Hello, today I found out that my child is incredibly deformed and the pregnancy itself is a threat to me, however I was not referred for a legal abortion in Poland but the doctor immediately advised to go abroad, why is it so? The gynecologist admitted that I could even die…” In online interviews, women tell their personal stories: “The doctors did not want to terminate [ectopic] pregnancy, although there was a medical and legal basis for doing so. The doctors cited the fact that the embryo's heart was beating.” A recent, very minor, news story: A woman’s body, along with the body of her five-month-old baby, was found in a well. After the water was pumped out, the woman's cell phone as well as records of her child's medical appointments were found. In her handwritten suicide note she explained that she was depressed because she feared that her son may be disabled in the future—something she couldn’t live with.

If I could warn you, I would tell you to organize, prepare, create underground webs of support, to remember and take care of the most unprivileged communities who don’t have access to help or information. If, if, if… it is the “if” that needs to be fought for. If something goes wrong with the pregnancy, who’s going to save you?

As for those who still think abortion bans are a way to go… If I had superpowers I would shrink and become Tinker Bell, to whisper in their ears and ask: Why limit yourself to only one aspect of the way the womb does its magic? Why not get the full package, with all that it entails? Let me take you for a hell of a ride. Come and live in our skin when we go through puberty and our bodies change, breasts get bigger and all of a sudden you become a sexual object. Claimed, cat-called, and harassed, you are either flat as a board or a Big Tits McGee, a promiscuous tease at best. Or when your transforming body makes you hate every inch of yourself even more than the social expectations this change sparks. Take a walk in our shoes when every month we go through hormonal changes, signal molecules doing their wild dance in your veins, dragging you through euphoria, depression, or both at once. Go ahead and experience endometriosis when it hurts so much you want to bite half of your body off, piece by piece. Come and live in our bodies and minds when we mourn every month when we don’t get pregnant and we try for years, vehicles of emptiness, doomed to fail. Come and switch bodies with us when we miscarry and have to live with that horrible loss, oftentimes repeatedly. Come and live in our skin when we are fearless and care for our disabled children on our own, completely alone, becoming invisible for friends, relatives and most of all, the government. Come and walk in our shoes when we’re going through menopause and hormone replacement therapy is nowhere to be found. Oh, it doesn’t sound appealing, does it? I’m afraid you don’t fucking care about women’s health or about the life about to be born; it’s control over someone else’s body that’s so appealing.

But I am not Tinker Bell nor an oracle from a faraway land. I am also not a character from the Handmaid’s Tale, since this is not a fictional narrative that has been unfolding in front of us. A hellish reality doesn’t come dressed in red capes and white bonnets. It creeps in stealthily and enters the everyday, blending into the regular crowd practically unnoticed. On the surface, nothing really changes except that everything changes. You are a human being and then you’re a living coffin.


Agata Tumiłowicz-Mazur

Agata Tumiłowicz-Mazur is a scholar, writer, translator, and occasional theater critic currently based in Warsaw.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

All Issues