European Court Issues Momentous Decision Against Poland, Says Legal Abortion Following Rape Must Be Ensured

(PRESS RELEASE) - This week the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a landmark case that Poland violated an adolescent’s human rights when her access to a legal abortion after being raped was repeatedly obstructed. In a strongly worded decision, the court reproached Poland for failing to implement the legal right to abortion and for denying protection to women in need of reproductive health services, instead subjecting them to harassment and media exposure. For the first time ever, the court addressed the special vulnerability of an adolescent in need of abortion services and confirmed young people’s autonomy when it comes to their reproductive health.

“Poland has an extremely restrictive abortion law – way out of line with most other European countries – but allows abortion under certain circumstances, including rape,” said Johanna Westeson, Regional Director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “In practice, however, it is next to impossible for women to obtain these legal services, and women who attempt to do so are routinely subjected to coercion, humiliation, and harassment—clear violations of their human rights.”

“The European Court of Human Rights took a major step this week by shedding light on some of these violations and calling on Poland to ensure that all women, including adolescents, be allowed to exercise their fundamental right to reproductive health care, including access to safe, legal abortion.”

P. & S. v. Poland was filed before the court in May 2009 by the Center for Reproductive Rights in cooperation with the Reproductive Rights Legal Network of Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning.

“We have reached another milestone in our fight to ensure reproductive rights and access to sexual and reproductive health care for the women of Poland. The court’s judgment illustrates the continued urgency and need for abortion law and policy reform in Poland,” said Krystyna Kacpura, Executive Director of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning.

In April 2008, P, then 14 years old, became pregnant after being raped by a classmate Supported by her mother, S, she attempted to obtain a legal abortion, but encountered multiple obstacles. They were provided with misinformation and their personal information was leaked to the media. They were manipulated and harassed by doctors, anti-abortion groups and representatives of the Catholic Church. Hospital staff and the police manipulated the relationship between P and her mother—a process which resulted in the removal of P from S’s custody and her detention in a juvenile center. When P finally received a legal abortion following an intervention from the Ministry of Health, it happened in a clandestine manner, without being registered as a patient and without receiving post-abortion care.

The European Court of Human Rights found that Poland had violated a number of the adolescent’s and her mother’s rights, including their right to respect for their private life, as the process P went through to access legal abortion was deliberately hindered. The adolescent’s right to private life was also violated when her personal data was released by the hospital, as well as her right to liberty when she was detained in the juvenile center. Finally, the court found that the treatment that P had to endure from hospital staff, representatives from the Church, the police, and the judiciary, violated her right not to suffer inhuman or degrading treatment – the court taking into account her young age and special vulnerability due to the sexual abuse she had suffered.

Importantly, the court highlighted that health professionals’ denial of lawful reproductive health services based on their moral and religious objections play a key role in the continued violations of reproductive rights in Poland. This is primarily due to the fact that no effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that women will be referred to non-objecting providers, even though Polish law establishes a duty to refer.

Women in Poland are often unable to terminate pregnancies even in cases where it is legal, as the current law on abortion is unclear and lacks government regulation. As a result, an estimated 80,000-200,000 women per year in Poland are forced to pursue clandestine abortions.

The European Court of Human Rights has previously recognized the dangers and human rights violations to which Poland’s exceedingly restrictive and unclear abortion law exposes women. In Tysiąc v. Poland (2007) and R.R. v. Poland (2011) the Court found that Poland violated its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to ensure practical and effective access to legal reproductive health services, including abortion and genetic prenatal testing. P. & S. v. Poland builds and expands on the standards developed in those judgments, highlighting even more clearly the continuing human rights violations that scores of women in Poland face by the repeated denial of necessary and legal reproductive health care.