One Polish student was struggling through university, with a toddler and a boyfriend seeking work abroad. She knew she couldn’t raise a second baby alone. Another young woman was too terrified to tell her conservative family she was expecting. A third was a student on exchange from East Asia, not ready for children as she struggled to make her way in Poland.
All were unwillingly pregnant and found themselves with nowhere to turn in Poland where abortion is only permitted in cases of rape, danger to a woman’s health or congenital deformity. The conservative, right-wing government recently tried to make the law even more restrictive. And the hold of the Catholic Church on the country’s culture leaves many women who become pregnant without a place to turn, or anyone to talk to. But these three and a few more found unexpected help in the homes of women in neighboring Germany.
Through friends and activists, the Polish women came across a small NGO in Berlin run by a handful of volunteers. The NGO links the Polish women to help, sometimes putting them in touch with organizations that can send them the abortion pill – although this is often confiscated by the Polish authorities. Other times, the Berliners help the Polish women to come to Germany for the procedure, providing the money for the trip, finding somewhere to stay, and taking them to doctors, psychologists and translators. Then they take them to the clinic, or stay with them if they take the abortion pill. Generally, the Berliners act as a friend or family member, explained founder Sarah Diehl.
Ms. Diehl is a filmmaker and novelist living in a shared apartment and she was inspired by a similar group in Kenya providing support to women across the region who call themselves Aunty Jane because often it’s the aunt who provides sexual education. She liked this idea of a German-Polish organization inspired by African feminists. “And that’s why it’s called Ciocia Basia – in Polish, it means Aunt Barbara.”
Women from not only Poland but also Syria and elsewhere have been coming to Aunt Barbara. Ms. Diehl found places for them to stay in Berlin – often the spare bedroom in her apartment, a walk-up in the Kreuzberg district. In her kitchen, the girls and the women spilled their fears: What if someone finds out? Will anyone know? What will happen to my body?
Ines Scheibe is a psychologist who counsels the women who come to the city through Ciocia Basia. This is required under German law, where abortion is also not allowed, though is also not prosecuted: Women undergo mandatory counseling by a psychologist three days before terminating their pregnancy. Ms. Scheibe said what distinguishes Polish women is their fear: They are afraid of getting caught, which means “a conviction and that’s a disaster for many jobs.”
The restrictions governments place on women’s reproductive rights and access to information make her angry, she said. Stefan Nachtwey, a colleague, agrees. He runs a family-planning clinic which carries out abortions and is disappointed that Germany’s laws governing abortion date back to the 1930s. “In the former East [Germany], women didn’t have to undergo mandatory counseling, so in that sense, things have gone backwards.” He fears that worse is to come as the right-wing Alternative for Germany enters the Bundestag.
Abortion laws recently made news in Germany after Kristina Hänel, a gynecologist, posted on her web page that she provides abortions. After being asked to remove this message, she instead provided a way to send information when requested. She was nonetheless fined €6,000 after a high-profile court case. She has appealed.
Mr. Nachtwey said that his institute also fears prosecution and that many peers in his profession had likewise been required to remove information about performing abortions.
“Of course, the situation is so much worse for women in Poland,” Ms. Scheibe acknowledged. What frustrates her is that she only sees a small number of the women who need help, and she wonders what becomes of women who live nearer to the Russian border, in the southern and eastern parts of Poland. “That bothers me a lot, because I don’t know what other mechanisms have emerged underground which could endanger the health of women there.” She said it was incredible, “that in this day and age, where technology has made so much possible in terms of conceiving babies, women wanting to end their pregnancies risk their health and potentially their lives.”
Woman living in smaller towns or villages have a much harder time, Anna Krenz confirmed. She works for Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, a grassroots network supporting Polish women. “Activists in rural Poland who organize demonstrations are mistreated by the police and receive hate letters,” she told Handelsblatt Global. Access to reproductive rights is tied to money, she added. “You can have an abortion on the black market, or travel to Berlin, but that’s expensive.”
Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org