Police actions against a Polish woman who had a medication abortion triggered a national outcry in a country with the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Now, the woman is speaking up, hoping to break the taboo.
Since 2020, abortion in Poland is available only if the pregnancy poses a risk to a woman's life and health or results from rape and incest. While women who have terminated their pregnancies do not face any legal consequences, assisting abortion is punishable by up to three years in prison.
According to a 2022 poll, 70% of Polish people support women having free access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. However, it remains a divisive issue in a country whose conservative government is widely criticized by international partners for undermining judicial and media independence, among other freedoms.
So, when Joanna Parniewska shared her story in a TV interview last week, she found herself at the center of attention. And hate.
Parniewska says she took an abortion pill in April. and a week later, she called her psychiatrist for reasons unrelated to pregnancy termination. The doctor reported her to the police, who arrived at her home within minutes, along with an ambulance.
She was taken to the ER, where, she says, officers tried to prevent doctors from talking to her, asked for the IDs of those trying to defend her, and confiscated her laptop. But the worst happened when she was transferred to the OB-GYN ward in another hospital.
Although she was still bleeding as a side effect of taking an abortion pill, she says she did not need gynecological help. Nevertheless, female police officers strip-searched her.
"They told me to strip naked, do squats, and cough. I undressed, but I didn't want to take my panties off. It was too humiliating. I had a dirty sanitary pad. Then the police officers started threatening me that if I didn't give them my phone right now, they would take it themselves. They thought I hid the phone in my vagina or anus. I was terrified of the thought that aggressive police officers would forcefully touch my body. I gave them the phone, which was in my coat," Parniewska tells Healthnews.
Poland's national chief of police, Jarosław Szymczyk, defended officers' actions, saying there was a possibility of suicide which they sought to prevent. According to an initial statement by the local police, which was later deleted, the doctor informed the emergency services that the patient had an abortion, Notes from Poland reports. The police claimed intervention was necessary to determine if someone assisted Parniewska with abortion.
And while the police call a strip search "a standard procedure" in case of suspected suicide to find tools or substances that could be used for this purpose, Parniewska says that "the experience bordered sexual violence."
Parniewska's lawyer, Kamila Ferenc, told the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that they filed a complaint against police officers, whose actions were unlawful, according to a court. Meanwhile, prosecutors launched an investigation into the crimes of assisting or soliciting suicide and assisting abortion.
The Supreme Medical Chamber, an organization representing Poland’s physicians, stated that while a doctor who suspects suicide is obliged to report it to the emergency services, Parniewska’s treatment at a hospital was "a violation of the patient’s rights." The organization said it would seek an investigation into the case.
Parniewska says she went public to "protest against police impunity, against breach of medical confidentiality, and inhumane treatment."
She believes she speaks for every woman who could have found herself in a similar situation, while the police are trying to portray her as a "sinner" and a "madwoman" to undermine her credibility.
"Whether willingly or not, I became a public enemy for undermining the 'order' they impose on women," she says.
The incident drew condemnation from opposition figures. Katarzyna Kotula, a parliament member, asked, "Is it still Poland or already Gilead?" referring to a fictional dystopia from Margaret Atwood's novels.
Parniewska says: "My aim is to break the taboo in Poland finally. This anti-abortion paranoia. To dismantle the outdated thinking and stereotypes that women should be ashamed of and cannot decide for themselves. We're not stupid and clumsy. We have our own voice."