On Paper But Not In Practice: Ukrainian Women Refugees Abandoned By Poland’s Abortion Laws

Since Vladimir Putin started the war in Ukraine in February, Poland has become one of the leading states in support of Ukraine in its defence against the aggression of the Moscow regime. However, in addition to Poland being an ally of Ukraine, a dark part of Poland’s PiS government surfaced with this conflict resulting in a war against women. Although an estimate of 3 million people that crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border are now safe from Russian cluster bombs, Ukrainian women who became pregnant after being sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers have found themselves in a country with the most restrictive laws in Europe regarding access to contraception and abortion. Gathering international attention, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calls for reproductive services – including abortion access for Ukrainian refugees in Poland as the United Nations lists rape and other forms of sexual violence as war crimes that go unpunished.

After the 2020 Constitutional Tribunal in Poland ruled that abortions of malformed fetuses are unconditional, the decision reduced legal abortion in cases of rape, incest and if the mother’s health is under severe threat – but even these exceptions are rare to prove. On paper, while Ukrainian women sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers qualify for legal abortion in Poland, the reality of getting a legal abortion in the event of being sexually assaulted needs the approval of a prosecutor. “The rape victim has to explain who, where and how,” said Krystyna Kacpura, president of the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federal). “Of course, for Ukrainian women who were raped by Russian soldiers, this is impossible. And anyway, many of them are so traumatized that they will not speak about it at all —not even with us.”

While the precise numbers are not known, in early June, the Human Rights Monitoring Team for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights received reports of 124 acts of conflict-related sexual violence across Ukraine. However, war crimes of this nature are notoriously difficult to investigate, let alone prosecute.

As the war continues and more Ukrainian women are driven out of their homes and find themselves in neighbouring Poland, the influx of Ukrainian refugees will challenge Poland’s strict reproductive laws – an area in which Poland is in dispute with the EU. In the meantime, the longer the war continues and more Ukrainian refugees go to Poland, several issues emerge: the first is that of abandoned children. The second problem is human trafficking, as vulnerable and desperate women seeking abortions might fall into the hands of human traffickers. While grass root women’s rights groups and activists have been trying to support Ukrainian women seeking abortions and ensuring their safety, such efforts are met with hostility and imprisonment. It is therefore vital that International and Local NGOs urgently need the European Union’s back-up to stop serious violations of the fundamental rights to the health and self-determination of Ukrainian women.