The Federation for Women and Family Planning
Located at the heart of Europe, with a population of just under 40 million, Poland prides itself on its rich history, traditions, and strong democratic record since the fall of the communist regime. To many women and human rights advocates, however, Poland is also known as a country with some of Europe’s most restrictive laws on abortion that fundamentally limit women’s reproductive choices and their rights to dignity, self-determination, autonomy, and privacy. “Poland is a member of the European Union and signatory to major international human rights instruments – yet, when it comes to women’s rights, we are a black spot on the map of Europe,” says Krystyna Kacpura, Executive Director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning.
According to Poland’s Family Planning Act, abortion is allowed only under three circumstances: when pregnancy poses a threat to a woman’s health or life; when there is evidence of damage to the fetus; and when a pregnancy is a result of a criminal act (rape or incest). In reality, the application of this restrictive law is even more detrimental to women’s reproductive rights, as public hospitals and doctors even in the legally admissible cases frequently refuse to terminate pregnancy on the grounds of conscientious objection. According to government estimates, in 2011 only 669 legal abortions were performed in Poland. All of these procedures were conducted due to fetus malformation and on the grounds of risk to woman’s health or life. There were no recorded legal terminations of pregnancies resulting from a crime. As access to safe and legal abortion remains severely restricted, the incidence of illegal and generally unsafe abortions remains extremely high, jeopardizing women’s health and lives. In addition to difficulties accessing legal abortion services, women and young girls also suffer from limited access to other sexual reproductive health services such as accessing timely and adequate information about contraception, family planning, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and Poland remains one of the few countries in the European Union not providing sex education at schools.
Much of the strong anti-choice sentiment in Polish society continues to be driven and reinforced by the Catholic Church, which exerts immense influence on policy-makers, medical professionals, and the general public. Poland remains one of the most devoutly religious countries in Europe with close to 80 percent of Poles self-identifying as practicing Catholics. Only half of the population support a woman’s legal right to abortion, making the Polish society one of the most “anti-choice” in Europe.
In this highly complex and challenging context, the Federation has become widely recognized as the most influential advocate for women’s rights in Poland and one of the most powerful defenders of women’s reproductive freedoms in Europe. For many years, the group has tirelessly advocated for women’s interests, holding legislators and governments accountable, providing women with critical services and support, and mobilizing a much-needed opposition to the powerful anti-choice movement.
The Federation continues to be the sole organization in the country dedicating its work exclusively to the protection of women’s reproductive rights. Largely due to its efforts, a greater part of the Polish society has started recognizing reproductive rights as part of human rights.
During the two decades of operation, the Federation has continuously adapted its programmatic model and activities based on the changing political, social, and cultural circumstances. “This ability to respond to different contexts is reflected in our modus operandi – we focus on a range of activities including evidence-based advocacy, education, and counseling, and constantly modify our approach in response to the changing needs and expectations of both beneficiaries and opponents,” says Kacpura. The group’s holistic and comprehensive approach, tackling sexual and reproductive health and rights from various perspectives – legal, medical, political, religious, social, human rights, patients’ rights, and other – makes the organization not only powerful, but truly unique in the Polish and international context.
The Federation’s programmatic model rests on three pillars: advocacy and research; education programs for the public; and direct services and counseling to women. In all of these areas, and especially in advocacy activities, the Federation places high importance on visibility and reacting quickly to emerging opportunities to promote the reproductive rights of women. Keeping a high profile with politicians, media, and the general population; developing holistic and comprehensive programs that reflect the legal, social, and cultural complexity of the issue; boldly tackling difficult issues and entrenched taboos; actively engaging at the local, national, regional, and international levels; and developing vast networks of committed and experienced collaborators are some of the key strategies that have accounted for the Federation’s success.
Direct Services, Litigation, and Community Support
Psychological, legal, and medical counseling to women, intervening in cases of denial of access to abortion, and providing legal support in cases where women decide to bring their cases before a Polish or international court, are at the core of the Federation’s direct community services. The group operates a hotline, which provides essential information and counseling on contraception and sex education, counseling services by psychologists and health practitioners, and referrals. Given the absence of sex education at schools and overall denial of sexuality in the public sphere, for many women in Poland the hotline is the sole source of information on reproductive health and abortion. “Many women in Poland still believe that they will be punished if they perform abortion – whether at home or abroad,” says Kacpura. When the Federation recently launched its new summer hotline program for youth, in the first three hours it received over 200 calls and messages, indicating a very large demand for such services.
A team of highly experienced volunteer lawyers undertakes much of the Federation’s critical legal work on behalf of the Polish women. The Federation considers the creation of a country-wide network of 56 lawyers to be one of its key achievements. It is also a great example of the organization’s collaborative approach. The network consists of lawyers in various parts of the country who provide free counseling services and legal representation in courts. At the same time, the network acts as a consultative body to the Federation, assisting with the preparation of legal opinions and statements. The lawyers provided representation to plaintiffs in several landmark cases brought by the Federation to Polish and international courts. In one such recent example, in the R.R. v. Poland case, the European Court of Human Rights for the first time in Europe’s reproductive rights history, ruled in 2011 that denying a pregnant woman diagnostic services and keeping her uninformed about the health of her fetus was a violation of her human rights.
In another recent example of the group’s successful intervention at the community level, when Catholic pharmacists suddenly stopped selling contraceptive medication basing their decision on conscientious objection, the Federation reacted quickly by urging society to file complaints against pharmacies, appealed to state regulators, and mobilized media attention. The Federation’s prompt and coordinated efforts led to the end of the malpractice, ensuring the basic rights of the patients, predominantly women, are respected.
National Advocacy and Education Campaigns
As a watchdog organization, the Federation closely monitors, reports, and comments on the political and economic events and any proposed changes to policies and laws, not only in Poland, but also in the wider region of Central Europe. The group also provides shadow reports on the effects of the anti-abortion law in Poland to national and international bodies.
Extensive cooperation and inclusion of a wide range of stakeholders are the hallmarks of the Federation’s approach to advocacy. “We will cooperate with any institution that can help us in our issues,” says Kacpura. The Federation actively engages and educates decision-makers, viewing them as key agents of change. When the anti-choice movement, led by the Catholic Church, in June 2011 collected over 600,000 signatures in support of a proposed total abortion ban, the Federation reacted by holding a series of events for legislators to inform them on international standards on reproductive rights, organizing public protests, and mobilizing a large media campaign. Largely as a result of the Federation’s activities, the Parliament rejected the ban by a handful of votes. The group played a crucial role in mobilizing pro-choice forces on many other occasions, including successfully leading opposition to an initiative to introduce a clause on “protecting life from conception” in the Polish Constitution proposed by the conservative coalition government in 2006.
In another powerful example of advocacy and education activities, the Federation recently organized a series of events for politicians and the media about “abortion tourism,” aimed at raising awareness about the high numbers of Polish women traveling abroad to perform the procedure.ii As a result, this critical problem not only became present in the public debate but also is currently being addressed at the policy level by the government. The Federation also organized two sessions on women’s right to abortion at a recent session of the Polish Congress of Women, which gathers the country’s most influential women leaders, that were highly successful and received extensive media coverage.
Through multifaceted advocacy efforts, strategic media, and public campaigns, the Federation continues to raise awareness about women’s reproductive rights and actively engage decision-makers and the general public. Always staying on the radar of decision-makers and the general public is an important part of the group’s strategy that has kept the organization strong, visible, and influential for more than two decades. “We have to be seen – in front of the Parliament, in the media, in the public space; it is the cornerstone of our strategy,” says Kacpura. “We were the first ones to introduce the term “reproductive rights” in Poland. We have been fighting for over 20 years for the term to be used instead of “family services”, and now we can say with certainty that it is used and accepted by politicians, the media, and society.” The Federation considers achieving acceptance by decision-makers, the media, and society that the issue of reproductive rights exists in Poland and being recognized as the foremost expert in this area to be important indicators of the success of its advocacy strategy.
In addition to its activities in Poland, the Federation is also a powerful voice standing for women’s rights on the global stage. The organization actively engages in the United Nations and European advocacy spaces, including the European Union and the Council of Europe. The Federation created and leads the ASTRA and ASTRA Youth networks that unite Eastern and Central Europe’s groups working on reproductive rights. These networks have been recognized as expert advocacy resources on sexual and reproductive rights in the region and actively engage in shaping the thinking and policies on national and regional levels. In a recent example of its advocacy efforts, ASTRA Youth submitted a petition to the European Parliament on compulsory sexuality education in the European Union in 2011; this initiative is currently being considered by member states. The Federation is also invited as an expert to numerous international events on sexual and reproductive health and rights, such as recent public hearing in European Parliament on unsafe abortions in May 2012.
The Federation was awarded ECOSOC status in 1999 and since then has been consistently participating in the UN processes related to women’s rights and health. It has prepared multiple shadow reports to the EU Committee on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the EU Human Rights Committee, and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Subsequently, the Federation’s reports were used by the UN bodies in their suggestions and recommendations to the Polish government.
The Federation is truly unique in the international context because of its combination of initiatives on the international, regional, and national levels with the provision of services for individual women on the ground. “We are recognized in Europe as the only organization focusing on these three levels and having such an inclusive and comprehensive strategy,” says Kacpura. This multifaceted approach in combination with the Federation’s holistic strategies, high public profile, programmatic flexibility, and responsiveness to quickly changing circumstances have been the key factors accounting for the success of its programmatic model. “Reproductive rights is a highly political problem that has to be looked at and addressed from various perspectives – legal, medical, sociological, human rights, etc.,” says Kacpura of the group’s programmatic approach. In addition to effective program design, the Federation’s experience exemplifies the crucial importance of working with the media, constantly engaging and working with the public, and cooperating with stakeholders. “We are regarded as a partner by the government,” says Kacpura, recognizing this as one of the main achievements of the organization. “We are asked for advice, invited to seminars and conferences.”
Despite the group’s multiple achievements and successes, the multiple restrictions, taboo, and stigma surrounding sexuality and abortion in Poland remain. The Federation and Polish society will have to fight many battles before women can fully enjoy their reproductive rights. With the majority of European funds diverted to the implementation of Millennium Development Goals and international donors focusing on regions other than Eastern Europe, access to funding remains a big challenge for the group. Accessing flexible core funding to strengthen the organization and continue the development of its programs remains of most crucial importance – and hardest of all. Says Kacpura: “Over 20 years, the general funding provided by the Global Fund for Women was the most important for us. It allowed the Federation to exist, conduct our activities, and evolve. We could not have managed without you.”