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Tug-of-war over (14) in Polish abortion row
18/06/2008 The Irish Times

by Derek Scally

Poland has been gripped by the case of a 14-year-old pregnant girl caught in a bitter tug-of-war between the country's anti-abortion and pro-choice camps. The schoolgirl, known only by the pseudonym Agatam, is 11 weeks pregnant by a school friend who, she says, raped her.

Her mother says that several attempts to terminate the pregnancy - permitted under Poland's stringent abortion laws because Agata is under age, and sex with a minor is a crime - have failed bacause of anti-abortion activists' interference.

The activists say the girl is not sure what she wants and is being pressured into terminating the pregnancy by her mother and pro choice campaigners.

Agata's nightmare begain in April when she says she was raped by a fellow student, barely older than herself. She said the assault left her "covered in bruises" and, as an over-the-counter test later proved, pregnant.

She went to a gynaecologist, who informed the police and Agata's mother. After discussing the matter, mother and daughter applied for permission to have an abortion - granted on the ground that the pregnancy was the result of a crime.

But when they went to the local hospital in Lublin, southeast of Warsaw, Agata was shown, alone, into a room where a priest was waiting. The priest, Fr Krzysztof Podstawka, heads a local diocese organisation for single mothers called "Protection of Life".

Agata said that the gynaecologist returned later and said she would not perform the abortion, but would like to adopt Agata and her baby. The 14-year-old said that the doctor and priest dictated a letter to her in which she agreed to keep the baby. "I just said yes to everyone to have some peace," Agata told Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

When her mother heard what had happened, she contacted the Women's Federation in Warsaw and, with their help, found a clinic in the capital willing to perform the abortion. Waiting for them at the clinic door was Fr Postawka and a group of anti-abortion campaigners. Inside, doctors refused to perform the abortion, claiming they had been threatened.

When the girl and her mother left the hospital, the anti-abortion campaigners followed them. Alarmed, Agata's mother hailed a police car and asked to be brought to the local station; minutes after their arrival, Fr Podstawka showed up.

Meanwhile, authorities in Lublin received complaints about the mother's role in the case and, on their return, put Agata into emergency child care. There she received a constant flow of text messages on her mobile phone. "Be brave. Save yourself," wrote Fr Postawka. Another message, from a different number, read: "Friends of life will help you with everything. Save your baby."

In recent days, Agata was admitted to hospital complaining of stomach cramps; she admits changing her mind several times but says she is sure now that she wants an abortion. "I want to be a mother when I grow up, not now," she told Gazeta Wyborczca. "Now all I want is my own mother." Time is short: already in her 11th week, Polish law only allows legal terminations until the 12th week..

Legal rights campaigners are demanding an investigation into how the anti-abortion group found out about Agata's case. "Apart from the incredible stress for the girl, the situation at the door of the hospital is obviously a breach of medical confidentiality," said Prof Eleonora Zielinska, professor of law at Warsaw University.

Anti-abortion campaigners want the termination stopped, calling it a "coerced abortion". "Most abortions are forced on women by irresponsible partners, parents or abortion activists," said campaigner Jacek Sapa. "If we are witnessing coercion into abortion, we must act."

Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, permitting terminations only when a mother's health is in danger, the foetus shows severe deformities or, as in Agata's case, the pregnnancy is the result of a crime.

Even when legally permitted, many Polish doctors still refuse to perform the procedure because of moral objections. Polish women's groups estimate that between 80,000 and 200,000 "unofficial" abortions take place annually. An Irish woman undergoing one such procedure was caught up in a police raid last year; the abortion was later completed in hospital.