On Monday night, I attended a screening of Abortion Democracy at Emory University followed by a discussion led by the film’s director, Sarah Diehl. Diehl is a German feminist filmmaker, writer, and reproductive justice activist. For this film, she travelled to Poland and South Africa to research the relationship between the legal status of abortion and the lived experiences of women in those countries. She chose these countries for her research because they both reformed abortion during the 1990’s as part of their transition to democracy.
During apartheid in South Africa, abortion was legal only to save the life of the mother. When the African National Congress took over the government in 1994, they began working to reform abortion law. Three years later, South Africa legalized abortion. First trimester abortions became available “on demand” and in cases of rape, health risks, or for “socioeconomic reasons” during the second trimester. South Africa also allows trained nurses and midwives to perform abortions, whereas most countries require a doctor to perform the procedure. Today, even with abortion being legal, there are countless barriers to access in South Africa. Doctors and patients alike are fearful of openly discussing abortion. Women’s sexuality is stigmatized and abortion is judged negatively, even by professionals in the medical community. This judgment also causes doctors to worry about their reputation, which may be enough to discourage them from performing abortions. Also, the medical facilities which are able to perform abortions are found mostly in urban areas; for rural women, this means a huge added expense: travel. Of these facilities, forty percent are not in operations. This means that the remaining sixty percent of facilities are overcrowded and unable to meet the needs of all the patients. This is, in part, due to a lack of funding. During Bush’s eight-year regime, many clinics lost funding due to the implementation of the Global Gag Rule. Lastly, there is a great reluctance to accepting the new abortion law because it is seen as a Western import.
During the same time period, Poland was also making changes to legislation relating to abortion. After the fall of communism in 1989, Poland started transitioning towards democracy: the government was reformed, new laws were passed, and traditions were changed. During this period, the Polish government began building a strong relationship with the Catholic Church. The Church became increasingly influential and used this newfound power to encourage Poland to reform it’s law on abortion. The government put this off for four years, but finally responded to the pressures in 1993, when the Family Planning, Protection of Human Fetus and Conditions for Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed. This law states that a woman may only have an abortion if the pregnancy poses a threat to her health, if the life of the fetus is in danger, or if she became pregnant as a result of rape. The law also criminalizes all individuals that help Polish women obtain legal abortions, including the doctors that offer the service. Lawmakers hoped that this law would discourage women from having abortions; instead, it forced women to seek illegal abortions. Today, there are approximately 150 legal abortions performed each year in Poland. Meanwhile, the “abortion underground” is said to have anywhere between 80,000 and 200,000 clients each year. The abortion underground is made up of doctors that are willing to perform illegal abortions. Although this has been helpful for many women, there are many problems associated with this network. The abortion underground can be very risky and dangerous. Women can never be guaranteed that the doctor knows how to perform a surgical abortion, or whether or not the pills they are being given actually work to induce abortion. Also, because doctors know that access to abortion is so restricted, they are able to charge as much as they want for the procedure. One woman in the film says she was asked to pay 5,000 Polish zloty, the equivalent of 1,614 U.S. dollars, for an illegal abortion. This is an extremely large sum of money and unaffordable for the majority of women. Here, we see the biggest barrier to abortion access: class. As Diehl said, wealthy women will always have access to abortion, regardless of whether or not the procedure is approved by law.
The film ultimately concludes that barriers to abortion access exist in all countries, regardless of the legislation. When restrictive laws are passed, those that are disproportionately affected are women with lower socioeconomic statuses who cannot afford the procedure, legally or illegally. This leads women into situations which can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening. For example, the film talks about a Polish woman named Alicja Tysiac. She became pregnant with her third child in 2000 and was refused an abortion by numerous Polish gynecologists, even though they recognized the risk that she could lose her eyesight if she had the child. Shortly after giving birth, Tysiac “suffered retinal hemorrhage, which left her unable to see objects more than five feet away without the assistance of special glasses.” Her situation is becoming progressively worse and she is likely to lose all of her eyesight. This could have been prevented if Polish doctors had given her the abortion she needed, but because of the restrictive law and “systematic hypocrisy” relating to abortion, she was forced to have the child.
Overall, I feel that the film did an incredible job highlighting how women’s reproductive rights are violated and neglected. Although the film focused on South Africa and Poland, the message can be applied to countries all over the world. It is crucial that we raise awareness about barriers to abortion access and help women work around them to ensure their safety, health, and well-being.