Pursuit of Justice

The story of Polish daughter and mother P and S is deeply complicated. P, a teenager, was raped and became pregnant as a consequence. She wanted to terminate the pregnancy and had a right to under Poland's laws. But powerful forces—doctors, judges, clergymen, and the police—bonded by a culture of hostility and discrimination, and fueled by an exceedingly restrictive and unclear abortion law, tried to prevent that lawful abortion, in part because she was young and vulnerable, through a litany of tactics that brought emotional agony to the adolescent and her mother.

The story is also simple. The mother, known in court documents as S, battled fiercely for her daughter, who needed a protector when her health and future were at risk. They prevailed, securing the needed procedure, but not without being scarred. They are left to wonder why so many opposed them.

That question may well have been the source of inspiration for their pursuit of justice. Represented by the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning in Warsaw and the Center for Reproductive Rights, P and S took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2009. Last year, the court delivered a landmark decision that affirms how crucial it is for adolescents to be able to exercise personal autonomy in the field of reproductive health, and for governments to facilitate that exercise, not hinder it. What happened to P was unquestionably a violation of her human rights.

Today, the Center is releasing a fact sheet about the case emphasizing its huge importance in the field of women's human rights and its potential to push the Polish government towards reform of its abysmal reproductive health policies.

P was 14-years-old in 2008 when she was raped. She became pregnant because of the assault, and under Polish law was entitled to an abortion—but only after P proved it to authorities. They didn't make it easy on the teen or her mother, but a prosecutor ultimately certified the cause of the pregnancy. That should've been the end of it.

It was not. The Catholic Church hierarchy wields significant power in Poland, and the country takes a hard line on abortion and reproductive health care overall. The circumstances surrounding P and S's plight were hardly unfamiliar there.

The coercion they faced was immediate and blatant. Health officials at a number of hospitals in the area made no secret of their opposition to abortion and did everything they could to prevent it. This mindset filtered down to physicians, whom S described as being "afraid" to perform an abortion.

In most countries, doctors are generally admired, thought of as leaders, worthy of trust. But according to S, not in Poland. "Trust for doctors?" she said. "What trust? I don't think anyone in Poland trusts the doctors."

S knew that she would encounter this type of discrimination when she and her daughter decided to pursue an abortion. "My first thought was to try and get an underground abortion," she said. Then she considered the Czech Republic, which wasn't far and offered greater access to reproductive health care. But going abroad for an abortion is complicated and expensive, and P and S did not have the resources needed. They were also pressured for time with P approaching 12 weeks of pregnancy, the cut off time for abortions in cases of rape in Poland.

What followed was a series of violations, wide-ranging and harmful, and designed to shame P from making a private decision with her mother:

  • At one hospital, an OBGYN told P and her mother that she needed a priest, not an abortion, and without their permission, the doctor arranged a meeting with a Catholic priest.
  • Anti-abortion activists harassed P and S, forcing them to seek protection from the police. But they ended up being the target of interrogation.
  • Another hospital breached the doctor-patient confidentiality by issuing a press release about P and S's plight—and publicly identifying them—so the hospital could declare it would never perform an abortion.
  • Officials and doctors fed the mother and daughter a steady stream of misleading and deliberately confusing information about the criteria for and process of a lawful abortion.

"I must say that the institutions made it very difficult," said S. "It took a lot of time, something we didn't have."

Perhaps none of those actions threatened the welfare of P and S as much as the efforts of a doctor, a priest, a judge, and the police. The doctor and priest convinced a judge that S was coercing her daughter into having an abortion, and that P didn't want to terminate her pregnancy. They urged the judge to remove P from S's custody to "protect her."

The judge failed to ask P or S a single question during the process, relying solely on the word of the doctor and the priest. Ultimately, they violated all procedural safeguards, remanded P to state custody, and placed her in a juvenile center. The police made matters worse by executing the order in the middle of the night, a harrowing experience for both daughter and mother.

Adding insult to injury, because the hospital publicly identified P and S, much of the community knew what they went through, and many were not sympathetic. "Classmates would say to my daughter, 'You murdered your child. Now you should be murdered,'" said S.

Calling what P and S endured an ordeal is an understatement. While the story ends with P obtaining an abortion in Poland, the experience certainly left damages in its wake. The animosity won't likely ever be forgotten.

S seems to have lost faith in her country. "Until something happens to you, you don't think about the functioning of the system in your country," she said. "It's rare that something works properly here."

Despite the victory in the European Court of Human Rights, she's downtrodden about reproductive rights in her homeland. "I've said it a few times: I hope this judgment will teach something to our decision makers. But even ten similar judgments will not, in my opinion, make women's rights better here."

At the same time, the experience has brought P and S closer. "I think we joined our forces and my child understood she had to stick with me," said S. She says her daughter is trying her best to move her life forward.

Dramatic change in Poland—or in any country that imposes harsh restrictions on reproductive health care—demands the same resilience and stubbornness that P and S demonstrated in securing and exercising their fundamental rights.

As the legal victories against Poland continue to accrue, the government will be forced to reconcile its policies. Those victories are built on the courage of fortitude of people, like the mother and daughter, who know what's right and are willing to fight for it. That courage inspires our movement and will lead us to the next victory.

Download and read the Center's fact sheet on P & S v. Poland here >