Abortion from Poland to Hong Kong : a challenge for human rights

Poland has shown during the past few months a great example of this worldwide issue: abortion. Still a taboo topic in society, abortion is not legal and accessible to women in each country. Depending on the regime, the level of conservatism, and the costs, a lot of women have to make this medical procedure illegally involving risk of their own lives. Abortion and the fight for the right to have it (or not) is a constant issue in different regions of the world. 

Poland is already one of the most restrictive European countries concerning abortion. It is illegal except in cases of rape, when the woman’s life is in jeopardy, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. The actual government wanted to ban those three options, making abortion totally illegal. Those political decisions has risen concern among the population, especially the youngest one and women, that have led to massive demonstrations on the last 23th of March for ‘Black Friday’. Tens of thousands of Poles dressed in black protested across the country on Friday (#CzarnyPiatek in polish) against this attempt by the ruling conservatives and the powerful Catholic Church: Polish women were on strike to stop anti-abortion legislation. Several thousand protesters gathered near the parliament building in Warsaw, with banners reading: “Woman is a Human Being Not an Incubator”. From Warsaw to Cracow and Gdansk, all big cities have experienced thousand people in the streets. The bill, already approved for further debate by the lower chamber of parliament in January and by a parliamentary committee in March, would remove the third category (irreparably condition of the fetus), which currently covers more than 90 percent of legal abortions. 

Gazeta Wyborcza – Demonstrations during Black Friday – 23/03/2018

Since 2015, the political party PIS (law and justice) is ruling the country. Their arrival is marked by the creation of a numerous amount of laws particularly controversial in Poland, making the country less and less democratic for the European standards in the European Union. PIS has decided to limit the freedom of the press, control all public media, reform the Constitutional court which has for aim to guarantee the independence of the Polish Constitution. Moreover, the atmosphere is changing in Poland, as Mateusz Kijowski, the founder and former chief of KOD (Committee of the Defense of Democracy), a social movement created in response of PIS’s conservative reforms after their election in 2015, said : « Poland is facing an important crisis right now. The government is encouraging xenophobia, homophobia and the rise of Eurosceptic voices. The general climate is evolving in a bad way, directly influenced by the Polish Catholic Church ». Indeed, the government has close ties to the Catholic Church and depends on its support in elections, which many explain that it influences its policy making. It is an important and powerful institution that states their complete opposition to any case of abortion. Polish Catholic bishops called in March on lawmakers to show “unconditional respect for every human being in all moments of its existence”.

In October 2016, the government has already tried to impose the total ban of abortion, that has been finally abandoned after hundred thousand people gathering in the streets of each big city in Poland under the slogan ‘Black protest’. Capitals all around the world have shown their support by protesting in front of each Polish embassy, such as Paris, Berlin, Rome, Washington DC, Canberra… Black Friday protest is more than an opposition to the “Stop Abortion” draft bill that would remove the main legal recourse Polish women have for getting a termination. « I want for my girls to have access to basic human rights,» Natasza Rutkowska, 49, active member of KOD who joined each demonstration in Warsaw, mother of two teenagers girls, « Women need to have the right to decide for their own bodies and lives ». The protesters, with Natasza Rutkowska, chanted “freedom of choice instead of terror”. A survey conducted by IBRiS pollster in January showed that 70 percent of Poles are against the proposed bill. Beside the only fact of abortion and feminism, it is a real health issue. The Council of Europe human rights group stated that preventing women from accessing safe and legal abortion care jeopardizes their human rights and lives. 

Compared to Poland during the past few months, Hong Kong society ignores unwanted pregnancies. The newsworthy coverage in media is clearly limited. De facto, termination is a taboo subject, maintained by the government, such as sexual education and information related to birth control. Basic sexual education is still shrouded in stigma and shame, and for the many young women who find themselves with accidental pregnancies, the city is a far cry from pro-choice. 

Hong Kong’s abortion law states that, for an abortion procedure, two doctors must sign off that the birth of the baby would cause a female patient severe mental or physical harm, or that the baby would be born seriously handicapped, up to 24 weeks. Women under 18 years of age generally require parental consent for the procedure. In theory, those medical procedures can be legally performed in public and private hospitals, for those two specific cases, which make Hong Kong’s abortion law, such as the one in Poland, restrictive and difficult for women. 

Although only 5 percent of the city’s population is Catholic, many of Hong Kong’s hospitals, schools, and charities are funded by the church. The Christian values, promoting pro-life ideas, can influence hospitals and doctors’ decisions concerning abortion. The Birthright Society of Hong Kong, which is also a catholic association, did not want to talk about unwanted pregnancies, even if its aim is to support women who prefer to keep their child to be born, and help them to arrange for adoption after delivery if they have decided to do so. Public hospitals conduct about 1,000 abortions each year, while many other private hospitals are reluctant to perform any termination of pregnancy for religious reasons.

Since 2011, Hong Kong has seen a 17% drop in termination rates, although the figure only applies to legal procedures: the number of cases decreases from 11,864 in 2011 to 9,890 in 2015 according to official documents. The most significant drop during this four-year period was in 2012, the year of the Central Hospital’s closure. This private hospital based in Mid-levels was the city’s largest provider of abortions, up to 60% of total cases. Doctors and nurses had operated for 46 years, offering low-cost services to patients who could not afford private care themselves. 

Nowadays, the Family Planning Association (FPA), an independent NGO, tries to take necessary actions following the closure of Central Hospital in 2012. The legal procedure stays the same with the need of two doctors’ signatures, however the FPA will perform on-site procedures for women who are up to 10 weeks pregnant. Dr. Susan Fan, the current executive director, answered by mail saying that « Abortion is not FPA’s main focus. Preventing unplanned pregnancies is. The association does of course facilitate abortion, but needs first to raise people’s awareness concerning the different ways of contraception ». The NGO is offering specialized counseling for unmarried women under the age of 26.

Wikimedi Commons – An office of the Family Planning Association (FPA)

Through FPA, Clara was ready to talk about her abortion, under anonymity*. She was 21 when she got her first abortion. « I never had someone that could teach sex education, even though I came from a wealthy family. I did not understand all the consequences, » said Clara. « I was so afraid of having a child without father or an abortion; so I did not say a word about it to all my entourage. I feel so ashamed ».  

* The interviewee asked for anonymity. Her name has been changed. 

Clara is not an isolated case. Women are afraid to share their experiences because of the taboo topic the society is making of it. The government of Hong Kong is the first one to not take action concerning this social issue about human rights and public health. Seeming reluctant to take measures, the first sentence on the website of the Family health center from the department of health is an incentive to keep the child, quoting two catholic associations that could help, including the one mentioned above, Birthright Society. It discourages women who want to stop their unwanted pregnancy by limiting options.

Moreover, despite the possibility to abort, there are material problems that women are facing in Hong Kong. Even if they do succeed in getting two signatures from doctors, public hospitals are overwhelmed by the demand and private hospitals are frequently too expensive for the majority of them. Indeed, one procedure in some private hospitals can cost between $HK 20,000 and $HK 40,000.

The worst cases, either in Poland or in Hong Kong, are when women need to get an illegal termination. They mainly go abroad : too the Czech Republic for Poles, and mainland China for Hong Kong women. In China, two hours by subway from Hong Kong in Shenzhen, abortions are much more affordable, costing only between $HK 50 to $HK 250. However, those procedures are more dangerous because of lack of hygiene that can cause excessive bleedings, infection and infertility. The number of women receiving this medical treatment are unknown in Poland and Hong Kong, because of its illegality. 

Hong Kong has a conservative and restrictive abortion law compared to other Asian countries. For example, China and Singapore, which are both political restrictive regimes, are paradoxically accepting abortion among young women. China, promoting originally communist values, does not have any religious affiliation that could limit women of having access to termination. In addition, the one-child policy implemented until 2015 had forced a lot of female individual to abort. In Singapore, abortions are permitted for citizens who want the option and are 24 weeks pregnant. Beyond this mark, the procedure is allowed only if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. There is no minimum age requirement for women to be eligible for an abortion, and obtaining parental consent is not a legal requirement. Terminations cost between S$800 (HK$4,600) to S$5,000 depending on whether a public or private hospital is used.

Abortion remains a right to get for women around the world : from Europe to Asia, it still is a serious public and social issue that involves politics and the place of women in the society. Mateusz Kijowski explains : « The access to abortion is the door that will open more opportunities for gender equality in each field if the women as a human being can decide for her body; not only in Poland but everywhere in the world ». 

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