by Johanna Westeson, Regional Director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights
In a notorious case a 14-year-old Polish woman was repeatedly denied abortion after having been raped. A gross violation of her human rights, the European Court of Human Rights has now stated. Johanna Westeson, Center for Reproductive Rights, welcomes the judgment.
On October 30, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued a landmark decision, P &, S v. Poland. The Court, which assesses whether European states live up to their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, found that Poland has grossly violated a young woman’s rights when she was hindered from accessing abortion following rape. The woman, who was 14 when this occurred in 2008, had been raped by a class mate, and had reported the incident to the police. Thereby she had, according to Polish law, the right to a lawful abortion. In theory. In practice things are very different.
The young woman, who goes by the pseudonym P, visited three hospitals, all of which refused to perform the abortion. She and her mother (S) were harassed, humiliated, and pressured by doctors, a Catholic priest, and the public who quickly mobilized after the hospital had disseminated the news about P’s plight to the media. Doctors both invoked conscience clauses and fabricated administrative requirements that supposedly would have to be fulfilled before an abortion could be performed. When anti-abortion activists harassed P and S they sought police protection—after which the police subjected them to hour-long interrogations and, finally, arrested P and sent her to a juvenile center where she was locked up.
The made-up rationale was that the mother tried to force P to have an abortion. Finally, the Ministry of Health intervened and sent P to a hospital far from her home where she had a clandestine abortion. She was not registered as a patient, and was sent home without accessing any post-abortion care.
Facts speak for themselves. Most of us feel instinctively that this young woman’s rights were violated, grossly and systematically. But what is groundbreaking is that the European Court now agrees, and forcefully so. Courts are conservative institutions, and law is by nature a slow and cautious process. To be SRHR [sexual and reproductive health and rights] activists with law as our primary tool is often frustrating. But, on the other hand, when the law catches up with our emotional conviction that violations occurred and women were subjected to abuse in the name of religion or morality, then something happens. Then the world has become a slightly better place.
Because now the European Court says: no, the state cannot abuse young women in this way. Young women have a right to their bodies, their autonomy, and, not the least, their reproductive choices. When the state has decided that abortion is legal under certain conditions then nobody—not the state, not the church, not the doctors, not even the parents—can stop a teenager who under these circumstances needs to terminate her pregnancy. She decides—and her dignity, privacy, and integrity must be protected throughout the process.
In short, the European Court has ruled that teenagers’ reproductive autonomy is a matter of human rights. This is a great victory for young women in Europe and elsewhere.