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Staunchly Catholic Poland takes a new look at easing abortion laws

Poland has one of Europe's strictest abortion policies, but critics say it has only driven the practice underground. Now, parliament is expected to consider a bill that would ease restrictions.

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When pregnant women in Poland decide to have an abortion, they take a common but highly secretive step. "I found some phone numbers in the newspaper; I called around," explains a young blonde woman named Jola. The doctors are listed anonymously in the classifieds section offering to "induce menstruation" or provide "full service." Everybody understands.

"You cannot use the words 'abortion' or 'termination'; rather, 'I am pregnant – can you help me?' Something like that," she says, speaking of her illegal abortion in the 2009 Polish documentary, "Underground Women's State." None of the seven women interviewed give their full name and all are well disguised.

Although the topic has long been taboo in Poland, leaders on both sides of the abortion debate now acknowledge the existence of this hidden, private practice. And this month, the Polish parliament is expected to vote on whether to liberalize its abortion policy, one of the strictest in Europe.

Under the current law, a woman is allowed an abortion paid for by Poland's universal healthcare only if she is raped, if her health is at risk, or if the fetus is severely deformed. However, anti-abortion sentiment is so strong in Poland that even in those cases, hospitals will often object to the service on the grounds of their own religious beliefs. (In Poland's most famous case, Alicja Tysiac was awarded 25,000 euros – $33,000 – in 2007 by the European Court of Human Rights, after being denied an abortion even though eye specialists had warned that giving birth could make her go blind.)

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