Recently I had the opportunity to view the dynamic and thought-provoking film “Abortion Democracy: Poland/South Africa” by the talented German film-maker Sarah Diehl when it was screened at the University of Washington by that school’s chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice. Even for many of us who feel we are knowledgeable on domestic and international abortion rights and women’s health issues, this award-winning documentary was eye-opening.
The film skillfully and powerfully contrasts the differences in abortion policies and laws regulating abortions in two countries and describes their impact on the lives of women. “Abortion Democracy” reveals how the legal status of women is a direct result of the silencing–or the empowering–of women’s voices. The message of the documentary serves to emphasize the critical need for safe abortion care and liberal abortion laws for women and girls everywhere. But it also illustrates a key and painful theme…the tragic paradox that the implementation of such laws may have a minimal impact on the actual accessibility of safe abortion care.
In Poland, one of the two countries profiled, abortion is illegal and legal abortions are virtually impossible to obtain. But illegal abortions are generally available–in fact, doctors even advertise in newspapers–although these procedures often occur in “bad settings.” Illegal abortions are also very expensive in Poland–yet another universal theme. Contrasted to South Africa, the other country that is spotlighted, abortion is legal but unavailable–particularly for black women–and women there actually have a much more difficult time obtaining information and services in public hospitals due to the ongoing effect of anti-choice language that reinforces the stigma of abortion. This contributes to the disrespectful and judgmental behavior of medical staff who refuse to perform or participate in safe abortion care.
One would initially think that the situation for women in Poland would be far more horrific than the one in South Africa, but we know that the reality of abortion rights and reproductive justice is never so clear. The truth is that the reality for women and girls remains oppressive and disrespectful in both countries.
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Although it is well-known that woman frequently struggle to obtain safe abortions in many parts of the world (including, for example, in the U.S. where abortion has been legal but far too often accessible since 1973), my reaction to that reality as I was watching the film was: how crazy and twisted is this?
Of course, it is all very crazy, very twisted, and so shockingly ignorant of women’s lives, needs, and choices.
In 1993, Poland banned abortion after the fall of communism and due to the increasing influence of the Catholic Church (note that the pope at that time, John Paul II, was a native of Poland and certainly his particular impact on Poland’s abortion laws was nothing short of enormous). Abortion had been legal under the communist government, but women were sold out in a deal between the Church and politicians eager to demonstrate to the world their version of a non-Communist “democracy.” These types of collusions are increasingly common and successful everywhere. A few years later, in 1997, South Africa legalized abortion, reforming the health system after the fall of apartheid. In Polish society and media, women’s perspectives were essentially hidden and made invisible; in South Africa, they were invited to give public hearings in the parliament around the issues of reproductive rights and the need for safe abortion care.
And yet, even with these contrasts, the women in both countries struggle–and they struggle mightily–for their rights and recognition as they live out the pervasive impact of sexism, religious fundamentalism, and violence. The talented German director, writer, and activist behind “Abortion Democracy,” Sarah Diehl of Berlin who has advanced degrees in African Studies and Gender Studies, is the impetus behind this compelling documentary. As a co-founder of the European Pro-Choice Network, she has interviewed for her film a knowledgeable and diverse panel of activists, medical professionals, journalists, economists, researchers, writers, and non-profit organizational workers, primarily women, who describe how women suffer from the abortion laws of the two countries and how the rights of the fetus remain far elevated above the rights of women. In fact, women who have abortions are frequently labeled as evil and consorts of the devil. It’s chilling stuff. The interviewees’ powerful comments on their particular countries about the stigma of abortion–on how women who seek abortions are often shamed and vilified–and the low status of women are incredibly disturbing. In South Africa, a young homeless woman named Liz was selected by Ms. Diehl as that country’s case study. Appearing very vulnerable and even naive, she was forced out of her home after she was raped and became pregnant. She roams the streets of Cape Town searching for a safe place to sleep and is now too advanced in her pregnancy to obtain an abortion. Her story is poignant and heart-breaking.
Equally so is the story of Alicja Tysiac, the case study for Poland. As a 35-year-old mother of two whose eyesight was predictably and permanently damaged after she was unable to obtain a legal therapeutic abortion during her third pregnancy, her words serve to illustrate how little her life and health were regarded as she unsuccessfully sought a physician to perform the legal abortion she deserved and so desperately needed. Abortion is supposed to be legally permitted in Poland when the woman’s life and health are threatened, or if the pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest. But this rarely occurs (it is estimated that only 200 legal abortions occur annually for the entire country) due to the strong stigma of abortion as Poland’s greatest evil, a belief system widely perpetrated by powerful social and religious forces. Ms. Tysiac did not have the funds and class privilege of wealthier women to obtain an expensive illegal abortion. Although she sued the Polish government for this tragic denial of her right to a legal abortion as a violation of her human rights and eventually won a ground-breaking victory, including reparations, in a European Union court, she now faces permanent blindness. Her heart-breaking story illustrates how damaging Poland’s abortion laws and cultural attitudes towards women are.
Ms. Diehl is a committed feminist and is using her powerful documentary as a movement-building tool as she tours the world. She is the editor of two women-focused anthologies and passionately speaks of patriarchy, anti-choice moralism, ignorance, hypocrisy, and the importance of female self-determination when she discusses her work. “I think that abortion access and the overall abortion debate has to be seen in the bigger context of how female self-determination is questioned and compromised. It is really alarming that conservatives want to use this issue to oppose the idea of self-determination and equality for women altogether and to focus on abortion as the sign for decadence in modern life. Abortion is being hijacked by conservatives to campaign against women’s rights and women’s lives. They know that they can mobilize huge crowds against the women’s movement with the image of saving the life of the fetus even when this costs women their lives. The hypocrisy is so clear…A point in the anti-choice movement that I find interesting is the longing to see the embryo as the absolute perfect innocent life that has to be protected from the self-determination of women. That also causes people to see the womb as a dangerous place for the embryo and to see women’s rights and children’s rights as something opposite. That is a really dangerous development…
“In their rhetoric, women’s self-determination is the core problem that has led to the chaos and decay in modernity and the reason for the failure of nation-states…Being moralistic, anti-abortion rhetoric is their tool to make their fundamentalism saleable to a vast majority. They try to present abortion as the problem, not poverty and their societal-imposed lack of access to education, equal rights, and contraception. The crazy thing is that conservatives want to always present the self-determination of women as the problem that causes abortion rather than view self-determination, empowerment, equality, and education as the solution to prevent unwanted pregnancies… We must take the language back, reverse anti-choice stigma and public opinion, and create our own empowering language to be able to effectively talk about women and their lives…Every woman in every situation must have a right to choose.”
Ms. Diehl had no outside funding for “Abortion Democracy” and shot the movie on a portable camera with her own resources. She has been on tour since August 2008 and is currently in the U.S . With more than 67,000 women still dying from illegal, unsafe abortions annually worldwide, her film continues to illustrate the need for laws both protecting abortion and also allowing for safe and convenient access in obtaining them. The need for abortion remains in every society whether abortion is legal or not and Ms. Diehl’s talent and insights shine through as she emphasizes how key it is for women to keep speaking out because once a right is criminalized, stigmatized beyond reach, or completely banned, it is not easy to reinvigorate or recover.
Only a change in the fundamental social, religious, and cultural attitudes towards abortion, contraception, reproductive health, and women’s self-determination can ensure a woman’s right to true dignified reproductive choice. Ms Diehl continues this important human rights discussion in her next film (still in production) currently entitled “Pregnant Journeys” which will profile abortion rights and social stigma against women in Mexico, Tanzania, and her home country Germany. Stay tuned for more ground-breaking work from this visionary young woman. You can contact her for more information about her work and a possible showing at firstname.lastname@example.org .